Living on table scraps

There’s poverty and there’s poverty, so the saying goes. When do-gooders talk about poverty in a place like Red Deer as a root cause of family breakdown, depression, drug addiction, crime and homelessness, do-nothings suggest the “poverty line” here is way too arbitrary.

There’s poverty and there’s poverty, so the saying goes. When do-gooders talk about poverty in a place like Red Deer as a root cause of family breakdown, depression, drug addiction, crime and homelessness, do-nothings suggest the “poverty line” here is way too arbitrary.

Here’s a widely-held public perception: Even street people in Red Deer get food to eat and shelter (most of the time), with money left over for drugs and a cellphone. Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong.

As if living one missed paycheque away from being homeless doesn’t count.

If you want to see real poverty, we’re told, look around the world.

Oxfam International has looked around the world and what they see relates to Red Deer.

If you ask 48,643 people in 44 nations around the world, as the Pew Research Centre has done, you will find what people in developed nations fear most: economic inequality.

Not climate change, not religious hatred and terrorism — economic inequality.

Those people have the data on their side. Oxfam recently released a report — conveniently before the next meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — that the globe now resembles Edwardian England. That was the time of Downton Abbey, when the rich were very rich indeed, and everyone else lived on their table scraps.

According to Oxfam, the top one per cent of the world’s richest people (those with assets over US$2.7 million) hold just under half the wealth of the entire world. Oxfam projects that next year, it will probably be more than half.

A year ago, 85 people held as much wealth as the bottom 50 per cent of humanity combined. Today, says Oxfam, it only takes 80 of the world’s wealthiest people to do that.

Looking at GDP per capita through history, researchers at the University of Warwick once calculated that 13th century peasants in Europe got to keep just over $2,000 a year, in today’s prices. GDP per capita is less than $2,000 per year in 26 countries of the world.

Yes, there is poor and there is poor. Just as there is rich and there is rich.

But how does that relate to Red Deer?

I can’t give you figures dollar-for-dollar, but I can say that Oxfam rated income inequality highest in the United States. Economically and socially, are we really that much different here?

Remember how I said people in developed nations fear income inequality more than anything else? That’s mostly in Europe, and particularly in countries like Spain and Greece, which are facing real social turmoil that stems out of income inequality.

Here, as Franklin Roosevelt said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But that was said just as the New Deal was embarking.

The era since then until now has been the longest period of social well-being in North America in a century. The era following the Second World War, more or less until 2000, was the era of greatest economic equality since North America became widely settled.

Incomes were stable and relatively equal for generations. In the 1950s and up, it became easy to think that in order to be poor, there had to be something wrong with you.

But in the last decade or so, when wealth became more concentrated in the hands of a few, North America’s sense of well-being has declined.

The middle class, which set the values on which we base our view of society, has shrunk both in numbers and in power. Being middle class today is less attainable than it has been since the 1930s, and once you get there, you find it’s less wealthy than you thought.

We know now that there’s not always something wrong with the poor. That would be just too many of us now. Rather, people are starting to think maybe there’s something wrong with the rich. Like the useless fops in Downton Abbey, surrounded by low-paid servants who did everything for them.

Thus, I believe, the fear that the Pew pollsters discovered.

Civic leaders in Red Deer are rightly concerned with the effects of poverty here, even if it’s not like poverty in Africa, even if there are shelters, soup kitchens and food banks.

Families who are promised that hard work will produce success are finding that promise is rather hollow. More and more, success is inherited, and enjoyed by people who really do not work much at all — not the way poor people must.

The rich in rich nations say losing their wealth is their greatest fear. But losing some of their share of wealth may be the salvation from their fears.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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