Imagine A Country
By Holly Sklar
Z magazine, July / August 1997
Imagine a country where one out of four children is born into
poverty, and wealth is being redistributed upward. Since the 1970s,
the top 1 percent of families have doubled their share of the
nation's wealth-while the percentage of children living in extreme
poverty has also doubled. Highlighting growing wage inequality,
the nation's leading business newspaper acknowledges, "The
rich really are getting richer, and the poor really are getting
Imagine a country where the top 1 percent of families have
about the same amount of wealth as the bottom 95 percent. Where
the poor and middle class are told to tighten their belts to balance
a national budget bloated with bailouts and subsidies for the
It's not Mexico.
Imagine a country which demands that people work for a living
while denying many a living wage.
Imagine a country where wages have fallen for average workers,
adjusting for inflation, despite significant growth in the economy.
Real per capita GDP (gross domestic product) rose 33 percent from
1973 to 1994, yet real weekly wages fell 19 percent for non-supervisory
workers, the vast majority of the workforce.
It's not Chile.
Imagine a country where the stock market provides "payoffs
Imagine a country where workers are downsized while corporate
profits and executive pay are up sized. The profits of the 500
leading corporations rose a record 23 percent in 1996 and CEO
compensation (including salary, bonus, and long-term compensation
such as stock options) shot up 54 percent, while workers' wages
and benefits barely kept pace with inflation. The average CEO
of a major corporation was paid as much as 42 factory workers
in 1980, 122 factory workers in 1989, and 209 factory workers
A leading business magazine says, "People who worked
hard to make their companies competitive are angry at the way
the profits are distributed. They think it is unfair, and they
are right." It's not England.
Imagine a country where living standards are falling for younger
generations despite the fact that many households have two wage
earners, have fewer children, and are better educated than their
parents. Since 1973, the share of workers without a high school
degree has been cut in half. The share of workers with at least
a four-year college degree has doubled.
The entry-level hourly wages of male high school graduates
fell 27.3 percent between 1979 and 1995, and the entry-level wages
of women high school graduates fell 18.9 percent.
A college degree is increasingly necessary, but not necessarily
sufficient to earn a decent income. Between 1989 and 1995, the
entry-level wages of male college graduates fell 9.5 percent,
and the entry-level wages of women college graduatesfell 7.7 percent.
Imagine a country where the percentage of young full-time
workers (ages 18-24) earning low wages doubled from 23 percent
in 1979 to 47 percent in 1992. Where families with household heads
ages 25 to 34 had 1994 incomes that were $4,611 less than their
1979 counterparts. It's not Russia.
Imagine a country where leading economists consider it "full
employment" when the official unemployment rate reaches 6
percent (over 7 million people). You're not counted officially
as unemployed just because-you're unemployed. To be counted in
the official unemployment rate you must have searched for work
in the past four weeks. The government doesn't count people as
"unemployed" if they are so discouraged from long and
fruitless job searches they have given up looking. It doesn't
count as "unemployed" those who couldn't look for work
in the past month because they had no child care, for example.
If you need a full-time job, but you're working part-time-whether
1 hour or 34 hours-because that's all you can find, you're counted
A leading business magazine observes, "Increasingly the
labor market is filled with surplus workers who are not being
counted as unemployed."
Imagine a country where there is a shortage of jobs, not a
shortage of work. Millions of people need work and urgent work
needs people-from creating affordable housing, to repairing bridges
and building mass transit, to cleaning up pollution and converting
to renewable energy, to staffing after-school pro grams and community
Imagine a country where for more and more people a job is
not a ticket out of poverty, but into the ranks of the working
poor. Between 1979 and 1992, the proportion of full-time workers
paid low wages jumped from 12 percent to 18 percent-nearly one
in every five full-time workers.
Imagine a country where one out of four officially poor children
live in families in which one or more parents work full time,
year round. The official poverty line is set well below the actual
cost of minimally adequate housing, health care, food, and other
Imagine a country where more workers are going back to the
future of sweatshops and day labor. Corporations are replacing
full-time jobs with disposable contingent workers." They
include temporary employees, contract workers, and "leased"
employees-some of them fired and then "rented" back
at a large discount by the same company-and involuntary part-time
workers, who want permanent full time work.
It's not Spain.
How do workers increasingly forced to migrate from job to
job, at low and variable wage rates, without health insurance
or paid vacation, much less a pension, care for themselves and
their families, own a home, pay for college, save for retirement,
plan a future, build strong communities? Imagine a country where
after mass layoffs and union-busting, less than 15 percent of
workers are unionized. One out of three workers were union members
Imagine a country where the concerns of working people are
dismissed as "special interests" and the profit-making
interests of globe-trotting corporations substitute for the "national
interest." Imagine a country whose government negotiates
"free trade" agreements that help corporations trade
freely on cheap labor at home and abroad.
One ad financed by the country's agency for inter national
development showed a Salvadoran woman in front of a sewing machine.
It told corporations, "You can hire her for 33 cents an hour.
Rosa is more than just colorful. She and her co-workers are known
for their industriousness, reliability and quick learning. They
make El Salvador one of the best buys." The country that
financed the ad intervened militarily to make sure El Salvador
would stay a "best buy" for corporations.
It's not Canada.
Imagine a country where more than half of all women with children
under age 6, and three-fourths of women with children ages 6-17,
are in the paid workforce, but affordable child care and after-school
programs are scarce. (Families with incomes below the poverty
line spend nearly one-fifth of their in comes on child care.)
Apparently, kids are expected to have three parents: Two parents
with jobs to pay the bills, and another parent to be home in mid-after
noon when school lets out-as well as all summer.
Imagine a country where women working year round, full time
earn 71 cents for every dollar men earn. Women don't pay 71 cents
on a man's dollar for their college degrees or 71 percent as much
to feed or house their children.
Imagine a country where instead of rooting out discrimination,
many policy makers are busily blaming women for their disproportionate
poverty. Back in 1977, a labor department study found that if
working women were paid what similarly qualified men earn, the
number of poor families would decrease by half. A 1991 government
study found that even "if all poor single mothers obtained
[full-time] jobs at their potential wage rates," given their
educational and employment background and prevailing wages, "the
percentage not earning enough to escape from poverty would be
35 percent." Two out of three workers who earn the miserly
minimum wage are women. Full-time work at minimum wage pays below
the official poverty line for a family of two.
Imagine a country where discrimination against women is pervasive
from the bottom to the top of the payscale, and it's not because
women are on the "mommy track." In the words of a leading
business magazine, "at the same level of management, the
typical woman's pay is lower than her male colleague's-even when
she has the exact same qualifications, works just as many years,
relocates just as often, provides the main financial support for
her family, takes no time off for personal reasons, and wins the
same number of promotions to comparable jobs. "
It's not Japan.
Imagine a country where the awful labeling of children as
" illegitimate" has again been legitimized. Besides
meaning born out of wedlock, illegitimate also means illegal,
contrary to rules and logic, misbegotten, not genuine, wrong-to
be a bastard. The word illegitimate has consequences. It helps
make people more disposable. Single mothers and their children
have become prime scapegoats for illegitimate economics.
Imagine a country where violence against women is so epidemic
it is their leading cause of injury. So-called "domestic
violence' accounts for more visits to hospital emergency departments
than car crashes, muggings, and rapes combined. About a third
of all murdered women are killed by husbands, boy friends and
ex-partners (less than a tenth are killed by strangers). Researchers
say that "men commonly kill their female partners in response
to the woman' s at tempt to leave an abusive relationship. "
The country has no equal rights amendment.
It's not Algeria.
Imagine a country where homicide is the second-largest killer
of young people, ages 15-24; "accidents, " many of them
drunk-driving fatalities, are first. Increasingly lethal weapons
designed for hunting people are produced for profit by major manufacturers
and proudly defended by a politically powerful national rifle
association. Half the homes in the country contain firearms, and
guns in the home greatly increase the risk of murder and suicide
for family members and close acquaintances.
Informational material from a national shooting sports foundation
asks, "How old is old enough?" to have a gun, and advises
"Age is not the major yardstick. Some youngsters are
ready to start at 10, others at 14. The only real measures are
those of maturity and individual responsibility. Does your youngster
follow directions well? Would you leave him alone in the house
for two or three hours? Is he conscientious and reliable? Would
you send him to the grocery store with a list and a $20 bill?
If the answer to these questions or similar ones are yes then
the answer can also be yes when your child asks for his first
Imagine a country where children are taught violence is the
way to resolve conflict through popular wars and media "entertainment."
"In the media world, brutality is portrayed as ordinary and
amusing" and often merged with sex, observes a prominent
public health educator. The screen "good guys" not only
use violence as a first resort, but total war is the only response
to the dehumanized "bad guys" who often speak with foreign
accents. War cartoons and violent "superhero" shows
are created expressly to sell toys to children. Video and computer
games showcase increasingly graphic and participatory "virtual"
violence. The strong consensus of private and government research
is that on-screen violence con tributes to off-screen violence.
It's not Australia.
Imagine a country whose school system is rigged in favor of
the already-privileged, with lower caste children tracked by race
and income into the most deficient and demoralizing schools and
classrooms. Public school budgets are heavily determined by private
property taxes, allowing higher income districts to spend much
more than poor ones. In one large state in 1991-92, spending per
pupil ranged from $2,337 in the poorest district to $56,791 in
In rich districts kids take well-stocked libraries, laboratories,
and state-of-the-art computers for granted. In poor schools they
are rationing out-of date textbooks and toilet paper. Rich schools
often look like country clubs-with manicured sports fields and
swimming pools. Poor schools often look more like jails-with concrete
grounds and grated windows. College prep courses, art, music,
physical education, field trips, and foreign languages are often
considered necessities for the affluent, luxuries for the poor.
Wealthier citizens argue that lack of money isn't the problem
in poorer schools-family values are-until proposals are made to
make school spending more equitable. Then money matters greatly
for those who already have more.
It's not India.
Imagine a country where Black unemployment and infant mortality
is more than twice that of whites, and Black life expectancy is
seven years less. The government subsidized decades of segregated
suburbanization for whites while the inner cities left to people
of color were treated as outsider cities-separate, unequal, and
disposable. Recent studies have documented continuing discrimination
in employment, banking, and housing.
Imagine a country whose constitution once defined Black slaves
as worth three-fifths of whites. Today, median Black per capita
income is three-fifths of whites.
It's not South Africa.
Imagine a country which pretends that anyone who needs a job
can find one, while its federal reserve board enforces slow growth
economic policies that keep millions of people unemployed, underemployed,
Imagine a country with full prisons instead of full employment.
The prison population has more than doubled since 1980. The nation
is Number One in the world when it comes to locking up its own
people. The bureau of justice statistics reports that in 1985,
1 in every 320 of the nation's residents were incarcerated. By
the end of 1995, the figure had in creased to 1 in every 167.
Imagine a country where prison labor is a growth industry
and so-called "corrections" spending is the fastest
growing part of state budgets. Apparently, the government would
rather spend $25,000 a year to keep someone in prison than on
cost-effective pro grams of education, community development,
addiction treatment, and employment to keep them out. In the words
of a national center on institutions and alternatives, this nation
has "replaced the social safety net with a dragnet."
Imagine a country that has been criticized by human rights organizations
for expanding rather than abolishing use of the death penalty-despite
documented racial bias and numerous cases of innocents being put
It's not China.
Imagine a country that imprisons Black men at a rate nearly
five times more than apartheid South Africa. One out of three
Black men in their twenties are either in jail, on probation or
on parole. Meanwhile, one out of three Black men and women ages
16-19 are officially unemployed, as are nearly one out of five
ages 20-24. Remember, to be counted in the official unemployment
rate you must be actively looking for a job and not finding one.
"Surplus" workers are increasingly being criminalized.
A 1990 justice department report observed, "The fact
that the legal order not only countenanced but sustained slavery,
segregation, and discrimination for most of our Nation's history-and
the fact that the police were bound to uphold that order-set a
pattern for police behavior and attitudes toward minority communities
that has persisted until the pre sent day." A 1992 newspaper
article is titled, "GUILTY. . .of being black: Black men
say success doesn't save them from being suspected, harassed and
Imagine a country waging a racially biased "War on Drugs."
More than three out of four drug users are white, but Blacks and
Latinos are much more likely to be arrested and convicted for
drug offenses and receive much harsher sentences. Almost 90 percent
of those sentenced to state prison for drug possession in 1992
were Black and Latino.
A study in a prominent medical journal found that drug and
alcohol rates were slightly higher for pregnant white women than
pregnant Black women, but Black women were about ten times more
likely to be reported to authorities by private doctors and public
health clinics-under a mandatory reporting law. Poor women were
also more likely to be reported.
It is said that truth is the first casualty in war, and the
"War on Drugs" is no exception. Contrary to stereotype,
the typical cocaine user is white, male, a high school graduate
employed full time and living in a small metropolitan area or
suburb," says the nation's former drug czar. A leading newspaper
reports that law officers and judges say, "Although it is
clear that whites sell most of the nation's cocaine and account
for 80 percent of its consumers, it is blacks and other minorities
who continue to fill up [the] courtrooms and jails, largely because,
in a political climate that demands that something be done, they
are the easiest people to arrest."
Imagine a country which intervenes in other nations in the
name of the "War on Drugs," while it is the number one
exporter of addictive, life-shortening tobacco. It is also number
four in the world in alcohol consumption-the drug most associated
in reality with violence and death-and number one in drunk driving
fatalities per capita. Those arrested for drunk driving are overwhelmingly
white and male and typically treated much more leniently than
illicit drug of fenders.
It's not France.
Imagine a country where the cycle of unequal opportunity is
intensifying. Its beneficiaries often slander those most systematically
undervalued, underpaid, underemployed, underfinanced, underinsured,
underrated, and otherwise underserved and undermined-as undeserving,
"underclass," impoverished in moral and social values,
and lacking the proper "work ethic." The oft-heard stereotype
of deadbeat poor people masks the growing reality of dead-end
jobs and disposable workers.
Imagine a country abolishing aid to families with dependent
children while maintaining aid for dependent corporations.
Imagine a country slashing assistance to its poorest people,
disabled children, and elderly refugees to close a budget deficit
produced by excessive military spending and tax cuts for corporations
and the rich. Wealthy people-whose tax rates are among the lowest
in the world-not only benefited from deficit spending and tax
breaks, they earn interest on the debt as government bond holders.
Imagine a country with a greed surplus and justice deficit. According
to a former secretary of labor, "were the tax code as progressive
as it was even as late as 1977," the top 10 percent of income
earners would have paid approximately $93 billion more in taxes"
than they paid in 1989. How much is $93 billion? About the same
amount as the combined 1989 government budget for all these programs
for low-income persons: aid to families with dependent children,
supplemental security income, general assistance, food and nutrition
benefits, housing, jobs and employment training, and education
aid from preschool to college loans.
Imagine a country where state and local governments are rushing
to expand lotteries, video poker, and other government-promoted
gambling to raise revenues, disproportionately from the poor,
which they should be raising from a fair tax system.
Imagine a country whose military budget continues consuming
resources at nearly average Cold War levels although the Soviet
Union no longer exists. In the post-Cold War world, the "Peace
Dividend" means the congress gives the military more than
it asks for. This nation also leads the world in arms exports.
Imagine a country that ranks first in the world in wealth
and military power, and 26th in child mortality (under five).
If the government were a parent it would be guilty of child abuse.
Thousands of children die preventable deaths.
Imagine a country where health care is managed for healthy
profit. In many countries health care is a right, but in this
one 42 million people have no health insurance and another 29
million are underinsured, according to the nation's college of
physicians. Lack of health insurance is associated with a 25 per
cent higher risk of death.
Imagine a country where descendants of its first inhabitants
live on reservations strip-mined of natural resources. Life expectancy
averages in the 1940s-not the 1970s. Infant mortality is seven
times higher than the national average and a higher proportion
of people live in poverty than any other ethnic group. An Indian
leader is the country's best known political prisoner.
Imagine a country where 500 years of plunder and lies are
masked in expressions like "Indian giver." Where the
military still dubs enemy territory, "Indian country. "
Imagine a country which has less than 5 percent of the world's
population, but uses 25 percent of the world's oil resources.
Only 3 percent of the public's trips are made by public transportation.
It has felled more trees since 1978 than any other country. It
is the number one contributor to acid rain and global warming.
It's not Brazil.
Imagine a country where half the eligible voters don't vote.
The nation's house of representatives is not representative of
the nation. It is overwhelmingly male and disproportionately white.
The senate is representative of millionaires.
Imagine a country where white men who are "falling down"
the economic ladder are being encouraged to believe they are falling
because women and people of color are climbing over them to the
top or dragging them down from the bottom. That way, they will
blame women and people of color rather than the system. They will
buy the myth of "reverse discrimination." Never mind
that white males hold 95 percent of senior management positions
(vice president and above).
Imagine a country where on top of discrimination comes insult.
It's common for people of color to get none of the credit when
they succeed-portrayed as undeserving beneficiaries of affirmative
action and "reverse discrimination"-and all of the blame
when they fail. A study of the views of 15-to-24-year-olds found
that 49 percent of whites believe that it is more likely that
qualified whites lose out on scholarships, jobs, and promotions
because minorities get special preferences" than "qualified
minorities are denied scholarships, jobs, and promotions because
of racial prejudice." Only 34 percent believed that minorities
are more likely to lose out.
Imagine a country where scapegoating thrives on misinformation.
The majority of whites in a national 1995 survey said that average
Blacks held equal or better jobs than average whites. Survey respondents
also wrongly estimated the white share of the population to be
under 50 percent-rather than 74 percent.
Imagine a country where a former presidential press secretary
boasted to reporters: "You can say anything you want in a
debate, and 80 million people hear it. If reporters then document
that a candidate spoke untruthfully, so what? Maybe 200 people
read it, or 2,000 or 20,000."
Imagine a country where a far-right television commentator-turned-presidential
candidate-whose heroes include U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, Spanish
dictator Franco, and Chilean dictator Pinochet-told the national
convention of one of the two major parties: "There is a religious
war going on in this country. It is a cultural war." Delegates
waved signs saying "Gay Rights Never"-the l990s version
of segregation forever. Referring to recent rioting in a major
city, following the acquittal of police officers who had severely
beaten a Black man, the once and future candidate said: "I
met the troopers of the 18th Cavalry, who had come to save the
city...And as those boys took back the streets of [that city],
block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities and take
back our culture and take back our country."
It's not the former Yugoslavia.
Imagine a country where scapegoating fuels fear and fear fuels
scapegoating. The list of scapegoats grows rapidly with home less
people, women and children receiving welfare, people of color,
gays and lesbians, Jews, undocumented immigrants, long time legal
immigrants, people with disabilities. More and more children are
declared illegitimate. More and more people are treated as disposable.
It's not Germany.
It's the dis-United States.
Decades ago Martin Luther King Jr. warned, in Where Do We
Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Harper & Row, 1967), "History
is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals who
pursued [the] self-defeating path of hate." King declared:
"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question
the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
We are called to play the good samaritan on life's roadside; but...one
day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and
women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the
glaring contrast of poverty and wealth....There is nothing but
a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate
wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker,
laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness
to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum-and livable-income
for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic death
wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the
pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war."