Inequality and poverty US-style

US poverty

By Graham Peebles

Irrespective of one’s circumstances or stage of life, illness is never welcome. But in the United States if you are poor it can prove to be a total catastrophe, ending often in personal bankruptcy.

Inadequate healthcare

According to a report published in The American Journal of Medicine, medical bills are a major factor in more than 60 per cent of the personal bankruptcies in the United States. Healthcare insurance is an unaffordable luxury for the 15 per cent of the population – about 50 million people – now officially regarded as living in poverty in the USA, anxiously relying on good luck and a poor diet to keep sickness at bay.

Average individual healthcare insurance costs around 200 dollars per month, but this does not automatically cover prescription charges. Having paid around 12,000 dollars into insurance company coffers and made no claim in five years, a friend recently needed hospital care: no charge for admission and stay but antibiotics had to be paid for with an extra 50 dollars. My daughter, who is living in New York and has family health insurance, was charged 100 dollars for an ameliorative cream earlier in the year, as if it were infused with miracle oil and laced with melted gold.

The American healthcare system is a money-making machine for the insurance giants and their pharmaceutical bedfellows, and a major cause of poverty and hardship in the country.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US healthcare industry is the largest in the world with “300 billion dollars a year spent on prescription drugs alone”, a figure that is rising in tandem with the pharmaceutical companies’ colossal profits. Surprisingly – or perhaps not, given US politicians’ relationship with corporate leaders – the prices set by these companies are protected in law, even though 80 per cent of the population would support lower rates.

The American healthcare system is a money-making machine for the insurance giants and their pharmaceutical bedfellows, and a major cause of poverty and hardship in the country. It is inefficient and, at about double the cost per capita of comparable countries, extremely expensive.

The fact that the world’s only so-called “superpower” does not offer a healthcare system to all its citizens reflects the driving ideological doctrine that underpins all areas of life in the USA: capitalism with its single motive, profit. It is a system that is fuelling economic and social inequalities and trapping increasing numbers of people into a life of poverty and despair.

Disadvantaged and living in poverty

In August 2012 43 million Americans were classed as living in poverty, higher than at any time since 1959 when data was first collected and amounting to a 70 per cent increase in five years. These are people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – for their meals. However, if inflation was still calculated in the way it was 30 or 40 years ago, the poverty line would be much higher and millions more Americans would be considered as living in poverty. Predictably, wealth and poverty fall along lines demarcated by race and social background: 27 per cent of Hispanic and black people and 31 per cent of single mothers, compared with 13 per cent of adults generally.

Since the late 1970s poverty rates and levels of economic equality have been increasing dramatically. Under the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the days of unbridled competition and market forces that his administration championed, poverty numbers leapt to a little below the present figure. Reagan famously admitted to having “fought a war on poverty and poverty won”. Those under fire were poorly armed and inadequately prepared; the battle rages today and more furiously, with inequities and social disadvantages acute.

Lack of opportunities and a plethora of social problems, including overcrowding in housing and at school, poor nutrition and poor healthcare, contravene the spirit, at least, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25/1 of which states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Living in unsafe communities destroys hope and makes people more susceptible to emotional and psychological problems, including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and substance and alcohol abuse.

Beyond the ideological constraints of the various political “isms” of old, sharing as a rational economic principle is an idea whose time has perhaps arrived. But, of course, this is alien to capitalist principles that believe in the wisdom of the market.

Unemployment and/or poorly paid work are regarded as the primary causes of poverty in the US. However, Frances Stewart, Professor of Development Economics and Director of the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, University of Oxford, takes a different view. She believes that the equitable distribution of resources “from the privileged to the deprived would be enough to eliminate poverty in high- and middle-income countries”. That is. not simply the redistribution of wealth, but that of resources more broadly, in order to “improve the health, the education, the assets and the productivity of the poor so that the improving of their lives can become self sustaining”.

The fair and equitable sharing of resources to meet the needs of everyone in society is an economic model rooted in compassion and justice. Beyond the ideological constraints of the various political “isms” of old, sharing as a rational economic principle is an idea whose time has perhaps arrived. But, of course, this is alien to capitalist principles that believe in the wisdom of the market.

World Hunger believes that among the factors impoverishing US citizens are “the operation of the political and economic system in the United States which has tended to keep people from poor families poor” and “physical, mental and behavioural issues among some people who are poor. All too often physical and mental illness is a consequence and not the cause of poverty.

People are trapped into poverty by a system in which power rests with the wealthy. Those born into poor circumstances face a mountain of disadvantages which they can hardly ever escape. In a society that champions material success and individual achievement above all else, when all time and energy is given over to addressing the basic requirements of living, life becomes arduous and demoralizing.

Unjust, unrestrained inequality

If you are born into poverty in the United States, the likelihood is that you will remain there, especially as the US has lower mobility than other wealthy countries – a fact that flies in the face of the notion that America is a meritocracy and a land of opportunity.

According to Why Poverty, the 400 richest people in US control more wealth than the 150 million people who make up the bottom households combined. This is a staggering and shameful statistic in a country overflowing with resources and espousing democratic principles of freedom, equality and justice to all and sundry. It is even more shocking when you consider that Washington spends 1,000 billion dollars on its armed forces – more than the military expenditures of the rest of the world put together.

In a world where the market is believed to be infallible and all knowing, and profit is the motive and raison d’être of everything, every aspect of existence is seen as a commodity, fit to be traded, to be bought at the lowest price and sold for the highest amount, irrespective of the human or environmental cost. Such as world will inevitably create a significant amount of poverty and unemployment.

In a world where the market is believed to be infallible and all knowing, and profit is the motive and raison d’être of everything, every aspect of existence is seen as a commodity, fit to be traded, to be bought at the lowest price and sold for the highest amount…

But poverty and inequality are of little concern to those with power in the United States – the corporate leaders, financial magnates and business tycoons, sitting pretty in the top 1 per cent club and enjoying all the benefits of preferential tax arrangements and access to congressmen, presidents and other politicians.

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, claims that “there are many bought politicians in Washington” – bought by the rich, the hedge fund managers, the brokers and the chief executives of major corporations, such as David and Charles Koch. Estimated to be worth 62 billion dollars, they have donated funds to over half the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and ploughed millions of dollars into 230 university colleges to promote courses which support their “free” market ideology.

And what do the wealthy expect in exchange for the millions and billions of dollars “donated” to politicians – these are not, after all philanthropic acts from men of social conscience? Access to decision makers is the primary aim, in order to exert influence and fashion policy, ensuring that the economic system is managed in a manner that would benefit them in the fullest possible way.

More than enough, it would seem, is not enough to satiate the insatiable and so the madness continues unrestrained.

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