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 poorer."

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 well-off.

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 for layoffs."

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 in 1996.

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 as employed.

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 centers.

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 necessities.

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 in 1955.

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 parents:

"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 gun."

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 the wealthiest.

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, and underpaid.

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 to death.

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 detained."

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; day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life....

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."

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