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American inequality

Saturday, September 18, 2010
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What might students of politics make of the latest economic data from the USA which points to a widening gap between rich and poor?

When covering the American politics course, at the outset I challenge students to think about whether America lives up to the ideals which it claims to stand for. The USA and it people are attached to a large number of symbols of idealism based on principles of liberty, justice, and democracy. In many ways the country sees itself as the natural extension of a timeline that originates from the Bible, through the Magna Carta, to the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, defeat of external threats such as Fascism and Communism, and the birth of the American Dream (essentially, in the 1950s a hard working, unskilled individual could provide for their family a lifestyle largely unimaginable anywhere else in the world).

Within this framework, students can analyse institutions and participation and measure their impact against this vision of a shining city on a hill - e.g. do American interest groups help disperse power in a pluralistic fashion or do elites exploit use them to exploit access points to further drive a wedge between those with power and those without?

Taking this as a starting point, figures released this week pointing to a widening gap between rich and poor may point us in the direction of questioning America’s status.

According to the Guardian:

“One in seven Americans now live on or below the poverty line, according to figures published by the US Census Bureau. It is the sharpest annual rise for three decades, and analysts predicted next year’s figures will be even worse.

According to the bureau, 43.6 million people or 14.3% of the population were in poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million in 2008. This is the third consecutive annual rise.”

The US is unlike many other rich countries in that it lacks the kind of welfare systems found in comparable countries. It seems like something of a cliche, but many US citizens really are two paychecks from the street. Listen to this CNN posting as an example.

This state of affairs whereby the focus of society is much more biased towards individual reliance is propagated to a large extent on American mythology of the creation of the United States, such as the westward expansion on the Oregon trail, the conquering of the rugged land and dangers posed by trying to start out a new life in an undiscovered country. But what it means today is that the majority of Americans deeply distrust government encroaching into their lives and accept that there is a trade-off to be made between the prospect of becoming mega rich being greater in the US than anywhere else in the world and the danger that if things go wrong you could essentially lose everything. Understand this and a great deal of the debate in American politics makes more sense.

Those on the right of course, perhaps with some justification, argue that America’s deeply divided economics can be explained by the huge waves of immigration. In other words, if the country were to stop admitting the million plus people it gives refuge to every year, then inequality would narrow greatly since many of the immigrants then form part of the poorest social strata.

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Be that as it may there is no getting away from one particularly pertinent point for A level students: the economic downturn has hit Hispanics and blacks hardest. Race remains therefore, as Professor Robert McKeever has stated, America’s most intractable social problem.


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