Rampant poverty can’t be written off as the result of historical accident or a worker’s incompetence. It is actively cultivated by bad public policies that direct economic resources into the hands of a wealthy few. The resulting inequality creates unnecessary suffering all over the world, from the humanitarian crisis in Haiti to the alarmingly high poverty rate in the United States.
Systemic poverty in Haiti
The tragedy in Haiti is not only the result of a massive earthquake. As Richard Kim explains for The Nation, Haiti has long been one of the world’s poorest nations, and that poverty has prevented the country from protecting itself against natural disasters. As Kim explains:
Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters, its food shortages, poverty, deforestation and lack of infrastructure, are not accidental. To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point; Haiti was made poor—by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers and by the IMF and the World Bank.
Kim details Haiti’s struggles under the weight of colonialist debt that dates back to 1804, the year it won its independence from France. Soon after the revolution, the U.S. and France threatened a trade embargo against Haiti unless the nation of former slaves agreed to pay reparations to its former slave-masters in France. Haiti paid off this extortion with loans from U.S. and European banks. The country was still paying those loans back in the 1940s.
In 2003, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide demanded that France repay Haiti $21 billion of these unjust payments. He was ousted by a military coup for his efforts. Even today, the emergency IMF loans that are ostensibly helping Haiti cope with the disaster are crippled by insane stipulations, such as raising electricity prices for Haiti’s poorest citizens.
One-eighth of U.S. population receiving food stamps
The U.S. has been waging a quiet war against its own poor for decades as well. In a blog for Working In These Times, Akito Yoshikane highlights today’s record level of poverty: One in four U.S. children are living on food stamps, while one-eighth of the entire nation is receiving them. That’s over 38 million people, or more than four times the population of New York City. A poverty epidemic on this scale is a total affront to any concept of economic justice, liberal or conservative.
MLK and economic justice
Just economic policy was a critical concern for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But today’s 13.2% U.S. poverty rate is actually higher than when King spoke out against it in 1968, as Rich Benjamin notes for AlterNet. The economic oppression of minorities continues to this day. While the overall U.S. unemployment rate is 10%, among black workers, the rate is an astonishing 16.2%, while Latino and Latina workers face 12.9% unemployment.
10% unemployment vs. multi-million dollar bonuses
It’s impossible to tolerate 10% unemployment in any economy. But those high rates are especially cruel considering the multi-million-dollar bonuses being paid to bankers who were bailed out with U.S. citizens’ tax dollars. Nomi Prins‘ fantastic interactive chart at Mother Jones reveals both the obscene executive pay levels and staggering federal bailouts that banks subsequently used to boost profits and banker pay.
Top bank executives scored regal paydays for nearly destroying the economy, and some of them even helped pervert the government into an enabler of banking excess. Need an example? Prins highlights Robert Rubin, who pushed through a host of radical deregulatory laws as Treasury Secretary in the 1990s, then left to take a job at Citigroup, where he reaped over $120 million before his company needed a massive bailout. There’s no reason for policymakers to accept a 13.2% poverty rate while subsidizing paychecks for wealthy bankers.
What can be done?
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a panel convened to uncover the causes of the financial crisis, could play a key role in overturning the injustices embedded within the U.S. financial system. As Ruth Coniff notes for The Progressive, it’s not simply that the bailouts saved the banks. It’s that the banks are piggybacking on taxpayer-granted perks to score record profits.
Economic arguments are routinely deployed to excuse outrageous social injustices—the most common argument for the U.S. bank bailout claims that things would have been much worse for everyone if we hadn’t thrown billions at the banks. There are grains of truth in the argument. If all of the banks had actually failed, the result would have been economic mayhem. But that bailout money should have come with major strings attached. There is no reason why bank CEOs, rather than taxpayers, should be reaping the rewards from profits that taxpayer funds generated.
In both global and domestic politics, severe inequality is often accepted as an economic fact, not a problem that must be solved. But the moral outrage prompted by the disaster in Haiti and the U.S. financial bailout is both real and justified. If we want to live in a just society, we cannot continue to subsidize the rich by exploiting the poor.
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