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Inequality in America


Inequality in America         Gerry OShea

The United States can be proud of its record in promoting political rights - free speech underpins American culture, and adherence to the rule of law mandates treating all citizens equally. It is noteworthy that former president Donald Trump’s assertion of privilege because he served in the White House has failed to get support in the judiciary. The administration of law claims to operate above assertions of status or financial exuberance.

Unfortunately, the story is very different when we reflect on economic rights. According to OECD data, America has the second highest rate of poverty among developed countries, with 17.2% of the population living in that humiliating space – around 60 million citizens. By comparison, other rich countries such as Canada, Germany, and Sweden score at about half that percentage in this crucial measure of modern progress.

 According to a recent speech by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in Trinity College Dublin, the top 1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 99%. He was bemoaning the gross inequality that prevails in his country: allowing for inflation, workers’ salaries have not increased in the last fifty years even though company profits showed massive growth during that time span.

America is the only advanced economy that does not provide universal health coverage. Not surprisingly, the child mortality rate at 5.9% is significantly higher than in comparable Western countries. The average lifespan of Americans rests at 76.1 years, with Ireland now at 82.9, the United Kingdom at 80.8 and Japanese living on average an amazing 84.5 years.

Deprivation percentages at home and comparisons with other countries can elicit a yawn from readers, and in truth, arid statistics camouflage the real deprivation and human suffering of people living on the far edges of an acceptable standard in the United States.

Poverty is not just one seemingly unsurmountable obstacle waiting to be dealt with. It is an amalgam of daily deprivations and humiliations confronting multiple millions of Americans in every corner of the country.

Around 50% of American workers barely make it from one paycheck to the next. They are often told that they are lucky to have a job in “the greatest country in the world.” A recent study revealed that most of these workers could not meet an emergency bill of $400.

Their plight reminds me of lines from Thomas Grays's wonderful 18th-century poem “Elrgy Written in a Country Churchyard,” where he bemoans the undeveloped, unused talents of the people buried in the graveyard.

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.


Access to top educational facilities at all levels is tied to socioeconomic standing. Money talks, as the saying goes, and something else walks. An occasional kid from the ghetto will make it into a top college and a lucrative career. They are paraded as proof that the door to success is wide open in America, but statistics show that only exceptional sportsmen or a few academically gifted and determined students break through an invisible stop sign.

All the studies show that poverty is an intergenerational phenomenon. Certainly, doors open wide for the children of the richest 1%. They have family connections with fat checkbooks that guarantee acceptance into top colleges and ensure boardroom jobs in due course. Most top earners were born into privileged families.

The federal minimum wage was set at over seven dollars an hour more than ten years ago. Even in states where it is double that, minimum-paying jobs simply do not provide a basic standard of living, especially for families. More than twenty-five million people in the United States live in households paying more than half of their income for rent.

These families may be managing to meet their obligations now, but they are only one unexpected serious illness or broken-down vehicle away from financial disaster. Decades of research show that each home eviction causes major damage not only to a family’s finances, but also to their physical and mental health. A period of homelessness leaves a dark mark, especially on the psyches of children.

How do the plutocrats who thrive in the country justify so many citizens living in abject poverty while millionaires and billionaires are accorded every economic privilege. Surely, taxation policies should endeavor to remediate this upside-down situation.

The last big tax bill during the Trump administration, which resulted in adding trillions to the national debt, dramatically benefited the richest people in the country – the more billions you had, the more you got from the national treasury. To be specific, 82% of the benefits went to the richest 1% in the country.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, justified this generous dole for the wealthiest citizens by promising that these giveaways would somehow result in financial benefits for the middle class. In fact, he repeatedly promised that the billions going to the super-rich would trickle down and help ordinary workers. Furthermore, he assured the country that this reckless economic approach of cosseting the top earners would, somehow, result in lowering the national deficit. In fact, this trickle-down fantasy caused a ballooning debt for payment by future generations.

The philosophy behind this version of extreme capitalism  practiced widely in the United States revolves around a facile theory that near-hungry people will work harder to break out of their disability. The rich do not need any such motivation because they have plenty of money, which they tell you they worked hard for, and certainly, in their mind, they shouldn’t be expected to provide the means for the government to give “handouts” to the poor.

Some readers will feel that my analysis is unfair to the many people who have worked hard to develop small businesses. I applaud their success, but my core question remains: Why are so many people, especially children, living in such dire circumstances in the by-a-mile richest country in the world?

Thomas Gray highlights the sadness of this inequality in a powerful stanza from his poem.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness in the desert air.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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