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Richer Rich, Poorer Poor, and PSC

Pepper Spray CopHouse the Homeless looked at the Associated Press journalist Hope Yen’s report on the recent Pew survey about attitudes concerning class in the United States. It turned out to be so interesting, there’s more to say about it.

Increasing poverty and “stubbornly high unemployment” are mentioned, societal conditions that are no longer fresh news to anyone. We have seen months of Occupy movement activities, including in many places the welcoming into the ranks of people experiencing homelessness.

The media have been full of photos of peaceful demonstrators being struck, stunned, sprayed, and otherwise brutalized. The impression such pictures give is that the members of America’s police forces are desperate to keep their jobs. The police seem to be so panicked by the thought of unemployment, they are willing to drop the charade of protecting the people, to become the tools of an elite class that does not even have their best interests in mind. Afraid of losing their security, of becoming broke and powerless, they are overtaken by a primal urge to attack the thing they fear becoming.

Oddly, what really struck a public nerve was not an instance of out-of-control violence, but the iconic photo of protesters sitting peacefully on the ground, being pepper-sprayed by a UC Davis cop. His perfectly casual attitude of “business as usual” is far more insulting and frightening than a display of temper. Going about his job with all the composure of a gardener watering flowers, Pepper Spray Cop (PSC) became an Internet meme.

Hundreds of adaptations were generated by creative people with graphics software, and Tumblr has a great collection. The PSC on this page has been separated from its original context and touched up, for the convenience of anyone inspired to do some PSC art.

Hope Yen quoted one of the survey analysts from the Pew Research Center, Richard Morin, who sees “a growing public awareness of underlying shifts in the distribution of wealth in American society.” In 2005, the top 10% of the population held 49% of the wealth. By 2009, the top 10% held 56% of the wealth. Meanwhile, almost half the people in America are in a condition of poverty, and no matter how generous and caring they might be, a great many Americans are simply not in a position to help those who are in the worst condition of all, the actually homeless and out on the streets or packed in shelters.

Yet, incredibly, Reason magazine’s Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, seems to think everything is okay because “income mobility is actually alive and well in the United States of America.” She interviewed a University of Chicago economist named Steven Kaplan, whose main point seems to be that, whoever the top 1% were in 1990, they were not the same individuals as the top 1% in 2000, and so on. Things get churned around, and there is plenty of “income mobility.”

In other words, some people get rich but don’t stay that way, and some people who were not wealthy become wealthy. It’s as if, because different people take turns in the poverty sector, that somehow makes everything okay.

Yen quotes Scott Winship, from the Brookings Institute, who talks about other measures of economic distribution. He says:

These accounts generally conflate disappointing growth in men’s earnings with growth in household income, which has been impressive. Growth in women’s earnings has also been impressive…

We’ve got scholars claiming that the average household has a higher income than at some point back in history. Big whoop! Even if the average family income is higher, it’s achieved at the cost of both parents working. Two adults have to work, if they can find work, to maintain a household economic standard that, in the past, could have been attained with only one adult working. This is not progress.

Yen asks the rhetorical question: “So why are people still sleeping outside in protest?” A better question is, why are so many people still sleeping outside because they don’t have anyplace else to sleep? If things are so economically rosy, why are thousands of Americans still homeless? Maybe because we don’t yet have the Universal Living Wage, which promises to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

But what about economic charts and graphs? Glad you asked. Here are some magnificent ones, gathered by various sources and presented by Business Insider. The charts have such titles as:

The gap between the top 1% and everyone else hasn’t been this bad since the Roaring Twenties.

Half of America has 2.5% of the wealth.

The last two decades were great… if you were a CEO or owner. Not if you were anyone else.

Despite the myth of social mobility, poor Americans have a SLIM CHANCE of rising to the upper middle class

In introducing the charts, Gus Lubin says,

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Cliché, sure, but it’s also more true than at any time since the Gilded Age… The poor are getting poorer, wages are falling behind inflation, and social mobility is at an all-time low.

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Source: “Conflict between rich, poor strongest in 24 years,” Statesman.com, 01/11/12
Source: “For Richer and for Poorer,” Reason.com, 02/12
Source: “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America,” Business Insider, 04/09/10
Image by DonkeyHotey, used under its Creative Commons license.