If you teach someone to fish, you might enable that person to feed themselves for life, but if you fence off the lake you can keep all the fish yourself. And fishing might well become a prerequisite for eating, given the growing economic tribulations many find themselves in.
Although it isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary for a survey to inform us of the obvious, a report by the normally staid Associated Press news service reveals that four out of every five United States adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.” The AP report, based on research to be published by the Oxford University Press next year, finds that 79 percent of U.S. adults experience at least one of these three by age 60: unemployment at some point in their lives, a year or more of reliance on government aid such as food stamps, or income less than 150 percent of the poverty line.
The report cites corporate globalization, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs. And although poverty and economic insecurity are higher among People of Color — 90 percent of whom will experience one of the three above criteria for economic insecurity — poverty is increasing faster among Whites, of whom 76 percent will experience economic insecurity, according to the AP report.
Indeed, a sinking boat ultimately drowns everybody in it. Back to the fish story at the beginning of this post — one of the more ridiculous sayings people in the United States have foisted upon them is that if you give someone a fish you feed them for a day but if you teach them to fish they can feed themselves forever. Right-wingers are especially fond of this vaporous couplet, but a much more accurate depiction of Right-wing thought in action would be that one person should own the lake or river and keep it all for themselves, unless they charitably decide to sell some of its bounty. Can’t pay? Too bad, you don’t eat. The market speaks!
A series of reports have found that fewer people in the United States move from lower economic rungs to the higher rungs than in any other advanced capitalist country. The U.S. and Britain were found to be the countries with the least social mobility among nine North American and Western European countries in a 2006 study and another 2006 survey of the U.S., Britain and Scandinavian countries also found the U.S. dead last in social mobility.
The U.S. has less of a social safety net, greater income inequality, lesser unionization, and greater disparity in primary and secondary education than other advanced capitalist countries. Another factor is geographical dispersion. A study by researchers at the University of California and Harvard University, coincidentally also released in July 2013, found significant variations in social mobility among U.S. cities. Cities with the least mobility, such as Atlanta and Milwaukee, have lower rates of mobility than any developed country, the researchers said. Summarizing their findings, they wrote:
“We found significant correlations between intergenerational mobility and income inequality, economic and racial residential segregation, measures of K-12 school quality (such as test scores and high school dropout rates), social capital indices, and measures of family structure (such as the fraction of single parents in an area). In particular, areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility.”
The authors caution that the above are correlational and should not be interpreted as causal effects — there are multiple reasons for such dismal U.S. results that interact with one another. Nonetheless, the concentration of disadvantaged people often far from jobs in a city center, and their difficulty in getting to jobs due to substandard or non-existent mass transit — a common situation in U.S. cities — is a significant factor in lack of mobility. So is inequality.
The most common measure of inequality is the “gini co-efficient,” which measures the distribution of income among national populations. Among the more than 30 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (a club of the world’s advanced capitalist countries and the largest developing countries), the U.S. has the fourth-highest measure of inequality, with only Chile, Mexico and Turkey having worse gini co-efficient scores (after taxes and transfers). Moreover, only New Zealand has had a greater increase in inequality since 1985.
Almost every country has experienced an increase in inequality since 1985; the primary exceptions are found in Latin America. To put it in plain language, if a handful of people are taking everything, there is less for everybody else and the subsequent difficulties in maintaining an adequate standard of living increase.
Individualist propaganda would have it that it is your fault. But how can it be individuals’ fault if four out of five in the richest and most powerful country on Earth struggle to be able to eat properly and keep a roof over their heads? And this the model being imposed on the rest of the world.
Capitalist ideology equates “freedom” with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for the rich is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth. Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who?
“Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists — this is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media and the institutions of the corporate elite. That we have to live this way is indeed a fish story.