A few days ago Oxfam reported on wealth inequality: The richest one percent wrapped their hands around 82 percent of the wealth created last year. Worse the 3.7 billion people comprising the poor half of humanity gained nothing.
If anyone in the U.S. thinks those poor are remote, take a walk along with Leilani Farha, a Canadian lawyer and UN special rapporteur on adequate housing. Her job is to assess compliance with international human rights law. Yes, housing is a right according to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Ms. Farha has visited slums and shanty towns in poorer countries like Mexico, Philippines and Indonesia. But now she is in central San Francisco at the invitation of activists. It is a town where the median home value exceeds a million dollars but the reason for the invitation lies with the homeless under bridges, in alleyways and nooks, around 7,500 last year. She is headed to Los Angeles next and is concerned because everyone has told her the situation there is much worse.
The area west of the two main railroad stations in Chicago looked dilapidated thirty years ago but you would seldom see a homeless person or a panhandler. Now sleek new buildings fill the adjacent streets; there are new shops, businesses and food places but so are panhandlers lining the street.
Minimum wage is no longer enough to afford shelter, and the country is short about 7.5 million units of affordable housing according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That the problem is structural is evident: Tax policy has since the Reagan years favored the rich, both individuals and corporations, upon the backs of the defenseless poor. It has been true under Republicans and under Democrats. After all, it was Bill Clinton who ‘reformed’ welfare by cutting payments to the bone, and the so-called liberal Obama who tried aiming at social security pensions.
According to the Center for American Progress, the new tax bill’s benefits are aimed at the top one percent while the cuts will ultimately cost middle Americans. They will add by most estimates at least $1.4 trillion to the budget deficit threatening programs for the middle class and the poor such as Medicare and Medicaid, and who knows perhaps even Social Security. This was a bill requiring 60 votes (out of 100) in the senate and with only 51 Republicans, it needed Democratic votes.
Yes, inequality in the U.S. gets worse by the year and is the worst among developed nations but it doesn’t stop there — world inequality is a problem. Every year before Davos, Oxfam issues a report and then brings the subject up at the forum. Each year the attendees listen, each year Oxfam is invited back, and each year the situation deteriorates. It was rare to find a beggar in Britain (as indeed in the U.S.) in the 1950s and 1960s; it is commonplace now.
No one can be sure what tips the balance, but everyone knows extreme inequality is dangerous. It has and will lead to extreme events.