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"The great achievements of conservatism can only have one result. America is developing an aristocracy of the rich and serfdom of the poor and in so doing, threatening its own economic vitality".

 



Log cabin to White House? Not any more
Posted April 28, 2002 thepeoplesvoice.org

America is the most unequal society in the industrialised West. The richest 20 per cent of Americans earn nine times more than the poorest 20 per cent, a scale of inequality half as great again as in Japan, Germany and France. At the very top of American society, incomes and wealth have reached stupendous proportions. The country boasts some three million millionaires, and the richest 1 per cent of the population hold 38 per cent of its wealth, a concentration more marked than in any comparable country. This inequality is the most brutal fact of American life. Nor is it excused by more mobility and opportunity than other societies, America's great conceit. The reality is that US society is polarising and its social arteries hardening. The sumptuousness and bleakness of the respective lifestyles of rich and poor represent a scale of difference in opportunity and wealth that is almost medieval - and a standing offence to the American
expectation that everyone has the opportunity for life, liberty and happiness.

For those at the bottom, the consequence of the new conservatism that dominates the US is to make life increasingly desperate - and with progressively less opportunity. Eligibility for income support and public assistance is being steadily withdrawn; cumulatively, it had halved by 1998/9 from the levels of 20 years ago. Poorly educated and with negligible access to training programmes, the poor are locked into their status.

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted her own social experiment, spending 1998 working in a series of low-wage jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing home aide and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. The result of her year, documented in Nickel and Dimed, is an extraordinary Orwellian testimony to how tough American working life is for the bottom 20 per cent. She had absolutely no financial margin beyond paying the rent and what she needed to survive; saving or finding the time for any training to upgrade her status was beyond her. 'Most civilised nations compensate for the inadequacy of wages by providing relatively generous public services such as health insurance, free or subsidised child care, subsidised housing and effective public transport,' she writes. 'But the United States, for all its wealth, leaves its citizens to fend for themselves - facing market-based rents on their wages alone. For millions of Americans, that $10 - or even $8 or $6 an hour - is all there is.'

Conservatives try to excuse this inequality by arguing that American income and social mobility is uniquely high, as befits an exceptional civilisation. It is not; indeed it compares badly with the Europe about whom American conservatives are so patronising. Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and John Schmitt, the three authors of The State of Working America (described by the Financial Times as the most comprehensive independent analysis of the American labour market), compare the mobility of American workers with the four biggest European economies and three Scandinavian economies.

They find that the US has the lowest share of workers moving from the bottom fifth of workers into the second fifth, the lowest share moving into the top 60 per cent and the highest share of workers unable to sustain full-time employment. The most exhaustive study by the OECD confirms the poor rates of relative upward mobility for very low-paid American workers; it also found that full-time workers in Britain, Italy and Germany enjoy much more rapid growth in their earnings than those in the US, who rank roughly equal with the French. However, downward mobility was more marked in the US; American workers are more likely to suffer a reduction in their real earnings than workers in Europe

The cumulative evidence since the Second World War is that measured mobility in the US is little different from Europe's, despite all the propaganda. Lipset and Bendix in their groundbreaking study in 1959, Social Mobility in Industrial Society, could find no evidence that American men were moving any more rapidly from manual to non-manual labour than in other industrial societies. Later studies comparing the income mobility of the US with the Nordic countries and Germany either find no difference or that the US is worse.

Leading sociologists Robert Erikson and John Goldthorpe found precisely the same result in a more detailed breakdown of mobility, whether measuring what happens inter-generationally or over one individual's lifetime. The mystery, they write, is that given that there is no evidence of American exceptionalism or increased social mobility, why the myth persists.

The answer is that nobody in the highly introverted society that the US has become can believe that foreigners might do it as well or better - and the conservative intellectual ascendancy is not going to disabuse them. The combination of reduced educational opportunity for low-income students and more advantages conferred on the rich - the great achievements of conservatism - can only have one result. America is developing an aristocracy of the rich and serfdom of the poor and, in so doing, threatening its own economic vitality. observer.co.uk


Copyright
2002, The Observer 2002, The Observer

 

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