Last week, a story in Bloomberg Businessweek put income inequality into sharp relief.
"The poorest half of the world's population — that's 3.5 billion people," the publication reported, "control as much wealth as the 85 richest individuals in the world."
Now, to control is not necessarily to own; Mark Zuckerberg may control Facebook, but he's not the sole owner of the company. Still, all nuances aside, it's a dismaying statistic.
To be poor in America is not like being poor in much of the developing world. Few Americans are in danger of starvation or severe malnutrition. None are forced by war, drought or famine to seek refuge in other countries.
Yet compared to other developed countries, poor Americans have a rough go of it. If you're broke, jobless and/or homeless, you actually have a full-time job just negotiating the byzantine world of benefits, to which you may or may not be entitled, fending off scammers who prey upon the desperate, and somehow finding a "real" job that pays a living wage.
Do you qualify for food stamps? For unemployment? For health care? Can your kids get transportation to school? If you get a job, can you get there without a car? And if you have a car and it breaks down, you'd better have a network of friends who can help you figure it out — maybe you could do some free construction work in exchange for car repair.
Beware the purveyors of online education, who may arrange student loans for tens of thousands of dollars, then leave you with a worthless degree and a pile of debt. Watch out for the phony work-at-home "jobs," for payday lenders, and for the used car dealers who want to sell you a junker for several times what it's worth and finance it at a sky-high interest rate.
It's a cold, unfeeling world out there, one that seems to be run by sleek politicians who think cutting unemployment benefits is the surest way to get all the bums off their fat asses and back to work. They're sure there are plenty of jobs, though they have no personal experience of unemployment.
If you're out of work, unemployment benefits averaging $300 a week will keep you fed and housed. But thanks to Republicans in Congress, funding for extended unemployment benefits expired Dec. 28. And what might our peerless elected leaders have said to the 20,000 Coloradans whose benefits immediately lapsed?
I can guess: "You're welcome, moochers! Now go get a job!"
Yes, there's help, including here in Colorado Springs. Long-established networks of private charitable organizations, including Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, Ecumenical Social Ministries and the Salvation Army can feed, clothe and help you get back on your feet.
But they can't fix a sluggish economy. They can't force giant corporations to pay workers a living wage, when the companies can make more money by hiring part-timers and keeping wages low. They can't teach fearful suburbanites that the feral panhandlers who so distress downtown merchants and shoppers are only a tiny subset of the homeless population.
So what can we do? How can we help?
We can support the legacy organizations that are on the front line of the modern war against poverty by making them the first recipients of our charitable giving and volunteerism. We can support new efforts, such as Colorado Springs Food Rescue, which "rescues food that food distributors (grocery stores, restaurants, etc.) are going to throw away and brings it to those who need it most!"
We can change our shopping habits. Some national chains pay their employees a living wage and offer decent benefits — Costco is a shining example. Others do not. Do your research, and don't sacrifice a more equitable economy upon the altar of a cheaper flat-screen TV.
We can change our politicians. Don't be seduced by those who pander to the rich, living off scraps from the billionaires' tables.
And if you have a job, a place to live, food on the table, good health and a few bucks in the bank, rejoice in your good fortune — and imagine having to forage through downtown dumpsters on a winter afternoon.
"There but for the grace of God ..."
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