Two reports were issued in recent days that make for a jarring, albeit not surprising, juxtaposition. One, the Forbes magazine annual list of the world’s richest people, was met with widespread breathless reporting. The other, a comprehensive survey of the large numbers of people who don’t have enough to eat in the United States, passed almost without a trace.
Because it merits far more attention than it received, let’s start with the second report. Issued by the Food Research and Action Center, the report “Food Hardship in America 2012” found that 18.2 percent of people living in the U.S. have insufficient access to food, based on the number of respondents who answered yes to the question: “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”
That is close to one in five. Or, to put it another way, 57 million people in the United States — the richest country on Earth — face going hungry. In 20 states, representing all regions of the country, more than one in five do not have enough to eat. In a further irony, the U.S. metropolitan area with the highest level of reported hunger is Bakersfield, California, where 26.7 percent did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012. Bakersfield is located in California’s Central Valley, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions.
The Food Research and Action Center also reports that more than 70 percent of people surveyed believed that the federal government should spend more money to alleviate hunger and 75 percent disagreed with congressional plans to cut food-assistance programs, already considered by experts as too small to provide adequate nutrition. These results are in strong contrast to the dominant narrative that cuts to social spending are widely desired.
One of the many corporate-media outlets that consistently cheerlead for more austerity is Forbes. The self-proclaimed “capitalist tool” proudly announced that 1,426 billionaires stride our planet, collectively accumulating net worths totaling US$5.4 trillion — $800 billion more than a year earlier.
To put that $5.4 trillion figure in perspective, there are exactly two countries in the world — the U.S. and China — that have a larger gross domestic product. The two largest economies in the European Union, Germany and France (according to World Bank statistics), have a combined GDP of US$5.5 trillion — barely more than the assets of the world’s 1,426 billionaires.
Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim Helu again tops the list of the world’s richest people, with $73 billion to call his own. And once again, the Walton family, airs to the Wal-Mart fortune, are well represented — four separate Waltons are among the top 17, worth a combined $107 billion. That fortune is built on a ruthless system of sweatshops in the countries with the lowest labor costs and weakest enforcement of labor laws, and a relentless exploitation of its workforce. Wal-Mart is notorious for handing new employees forms to apply for food stamps because its pay is too low for survival.
The unemployment rate in the European Union is currently at 11.9 percent and a disastrous 23.6 percent for people age 25 and younger. Inequality in incomes is on the rise in countries around the world. Stock markets are flirting with record highs, reflecting the financial industry’s giddiness that employees have ever lesser leverage to counter their deteriorating pay and work conditions. Employee wages have been stagnant for more than three decades despite large increases in productivity.
Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?
How could we have become so disconnected from the reality of our lives that we can celebrate the totality of all this as the greatest feat of humanity and a monument to efficiency?