Inequality, indifference, inaction, immorality...it does not matter how we arrange these four words. If we do not change these four words, our values, our attitudes, our beliefs, our behavior, and actions, then nothing changes. The words remain the same; the conditions remain the same or worsen. In 2017, rising income and wealth inequality ranked as one of our greatest global risks. In 2014, OXFAM, a confederation of 21 independent charitable organizations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, estimated that the richest 85 people had wealth equal to that of the bottom 3.5 billion people. This year, eight people own the same as the poorest 50% of humans.
Shakespeare's Hamlet said, "To be or not to be, that is the question." But as Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "That is no problem. We all want to be. The real problem...is HOW to be and HOW not to be; that is our challenge, and it is what makes the difference between the human and the animal."
The following review will provide us a numerical picture of the immoral and widening gap between the richest and the poorest people, which is equal to the widening gap between many humans' needs, dreams, and their daily desperate reality. The richest 1% took 38% of new global wealth since 1995, while 50% got just 2%. The share of income presently captured by the poorest half of the world's population is about half of what it was in 1820, prior to the great divergence between the Western countries and their colonies. In 2020, a year of pandemic induced economic decline pushed tens of millions of people worldwide into extreme poverty and marked the greatest increase in the share of global billionaires' wealth on record. The richest 10% of the world's population own 76% of all wealth while the poorest four billion possess only 2%.
In the United States, the 400 richest people have wealth equal to our poorest 150 million. During the pandemic in the United States, billionaires' wealth increased by $2.1 trillion to $5.0 trillion. At the same time, millions lost jobs, homes, health insurance, life savings, and hope. Just because the marketplace economy expanded in both real and artificial value, does not mean that the common good expanded and all benefited. For one person to have more of a finite resource, another person must have less.
Income inequality continued to rise in 2020 and 2021. CEOs' incomes have increased 40% since 2009 and average American workers have seen their purchasing power decrease ever since 1999. Annual wages for the top 1.0% of earners went up 7.3%; wages for the top 0.1% increased by 9.9%; wages for the bottom 90.0% increased only 1.7%.
Another view of aggregate wage increases in America since 1979 is as follows:
• the top 1.0% of wages went up 179.3%;
• the top 0.1% of wages increased by 389.1%,
• and the bottom 90.0% of earners only saw their wages increase 28.2%.
Incidentally, many of the workers in the bottom 90.0% received no health benefits, pension or sick leave benefits, or paid time off for vacation or personal needs. Ironically, many of the jobs in this category were the ones deemed "essential" during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, too many American citizens believe that this inequality of income and wealth is "the way it is" or "it is what it is." Extreme inequality is many things, but one thing it is not is inevitable. We will leave to Shakespeare's melancholic Danish prince, the illusion that fates and forces beyond his control led to his tragedy; his chain of decisions were the real key to his destiny. The leading causes of obscene inequality are the political, economic and relative power policy decisions not based on values and morals concerned with the common good. Decisions have too often been made on a feudalistic, "Downton Abbey" mentality of power, position and greed; the age of privilege has outlived itself. We can change conditions if we so choose. Why should we? It is immoral not to and only continues to be a failure of humankind to humanity. "Some people are guilty, while all are responsible," said Heschel.
It is sad when a child is born and dies in almost the same breath, without the resources or time to have even one tiny dream. It is sadder still to have a dream you know you can never have nor be allowed to achieve. Maybe it is saddest to know we have the common dreams, ability, resources, and power to change things, but not the personal or collective values, morals, or will to do so.
Glenn Ballard, of Frankfort, has 40 years of experience in administration in the areas of mental health, health care and education. He is retired and "a repurposed citizen for commonwealth and country." He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.