Why aren’t all Americans worried about the growing problem of inequality?
If we aren’t living paycheck-to-paycheck ourselves, it is easy to be oblivious to the problems of those who are because we just don’t see them. Ironically, on-site exposure to the poorest of the poor in other countries can open our eyes to the problems the poor face in America. That’s one of the reasons why my husband and I have been leading trips to Central America for 11 years. Now if we could just get a few politicians to go with us . . .
When we worked building affordable homes for the poor in Costa Rica, Dave and I were introduced to their Minister of Housing. It was supposed to be a 10 minute courtesy call, but in the hour that followed we learned that his concern about slum housing was so great that he lived with a local family for a few days to experience for himself the conditions they had to contend with.
Matthew Arnold said that “Our inequality materializes our upper class, vulgarizes our middle class, brutalizes our lower class.” Barbara Ehrenreich discovered that herself when she went undercover in 1998, working at a series of minimum wage jobs in several cities, to discover what the poor have to contend with in the U.S.A. She said that her aim was “just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.” The book she wrote about about her experiences: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is fascinating reading that provides insight you just can’t get into the problem, unless you are living it yourself. Now if we could just get a few billionaires to do the same . . .
Chuck Collins said that one of the three critical steps to reversing inequality is to “Institute fair rules that don’t give one business or segment of society preference over others.” In other words, we need to level the playing field. Once we recognize it and acknowledge in our minds and hearts that the problem exists, we can and must tackle it.
Start by talking to people you encounter who are working at low-wage jobs. Say something, anything to the clerk at Wal-Mart and call her by name to recognize her existence. If she looks weary ask, “Is this a tough day?” Or “How has your day been?” The content isn’t important, but the recognition of the clerk as a fellow human is. The same thing goes for the clerk at the convenience store, the gardener at the park, the hotel maid, the restaurant dishwasher . . . well, you get the picture. Acknowledge the existence of these individuals and you’ll find yourself more aware of and concerned about them. That’s one step toward leveling the playing field.
Other steps must be taken by those in both appointed and elected political positions. Janet Yellen, is Chair of the Federal Reserve, which may well be the most powerful economic position in the world. According to Professor Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, Yellen “brought sensitivity to the key issue of our day, inequality, grasping that Fed macro and regulatory policies can have profound effects on both the poor and the rich.” Now if we could just get a few members of Congress to rewrite the tax rules that favor the wealthy . . .
There is no need for you and me to duplicate Barbara Ehrenreich’s experiences to understand the problems inequality creates, nor are we ever going to be Chair of the Federal Reserve, but we can all find ways to work toward leveling the playing field.
I see my role as writing about inequality. What’s yours?
Blessings on your efforts,