Beyond Apologies, Myth #7: Inequality

by Debra Efroymson

An old man pedals me to work one day in his rickshaw. We start chatting. When he hears that I’m from the US, he sighs with envy. “Ah, everyone is rich there.” I try to explain to him that, no, actually we have lots of poverty. He is surprised. Poverty in America? But it’s supposed to be such a rich country!

Almost everywhere I go, when I tell people I’m American, I hear a sigh of envy. Ah, America, that country where anyone, through hard work, can attain great wealth. Many Americans believe they will someday be millionaires. People accept huge and growing income inequality, in part because they hope one day to become wealthy themselves.

The reality is that great wealth exists side by side with great poverty, not only in America but in countries throughout the world, though the situation is far better in some than in others. It should not take long to notice that the situation is rigged against the poor. The poor generally get the worst education and suffer a number of other disadvantages that make it incredibly difficult to work their way out of poverty. If they succeed, they become the model: see? Anyone can do it if they try! If they fail, it’s obviously their fault.

Many years ago I worked one summer at a food bank in a southwest American city. The food bank collected damaged but still edible foods from grocery stores, as well as government surplus, and provided the food to social workers to distribute to poor families. The director of the food bank had several children, had himself been poor, and treated with utter scorn those who required such assistance to get by. If he had managed to work his way out of poverty, surely everyone could. My repeated attempts to convince him that he should not be so hasty to judge others were futile, though I did enjoy the many hours of arguing.

Another summer I did volunteer work at an NGO, where I became friends with one of the staff. Her partner had multiple physical disabilities and had never been able to hold a paying job; as a result, the support she received from government was minimal. The two could not survive on the one salary and the government pittance, so the woman with disabilities was forced to sell illegal drugs so that they could survive.

If we can get past the lovely but illusory idea of the American dream of hard work paying off, we may notice all the ways that the rich prey on the poor. They hire them at such low wages, they can barely survive. They steal their land and other resources. They lobby government to curtail social services and instead provide big tax cuts for the rich so that the wealthy can enjoy ever more luxury—and may the poor be damned.

There are many proven mechanisms for regularly shifting wealth from the top to the bottom. These are not mechanisms to support laziness, or to punish the hard working at the expense of the incompetent. No, they are humane means to allow everyone a decent life, while recognizing that wealth is not always gained through hard work or even by honest means. A society that lets the wealthy get away with whatever it wishes and allows the poor to sink into inhuman poverty should be called barbarian, not civilized. We can do better than that.


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