Plutarch, the master of all historians, had already identified the issue twenty centuries ago: “An imbalance between the rich and the poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”.
Today, inequality is possibly the worst problem of American society.
Over the last 30 years, income differences in the United States have increased substantially, with the overall level of inequality now approaching the extremes of the period before the Great Depression. According to New York University economist Edward Wolff, the richest 5% of American households control almost 60% of the country’s wealth and the richest 20% hold 83% of it while the bottom 80% has 17% and the bottom 40% less than 0.5%. Statistics tell us also that among OECD countries only Mexico distributes wealth more unequally than the US.
This is the first, direct cause of inequalities in education beginning at primary school level. As over half of the school’s funding come from local taxes with only a minimal percentage of Federal intervention, the wealth of the district of residence decides the quality of public school. This leads to higher barriers in access to university for low-income student, adding poor high school records to extremely high tuition costs.
In health, disparities tend to fall along income lines almost everywhere – poor people generally get sicker and die sooner than the rich. However, in the United States the gap between the rich and the poor is far wider than in most other developed democracies. This is mainly due to the fact that despite the much criticized Obama “socialist” mini-reform – the law is due to take full effect only by 2014 if not abolished before – still there is no universal access to healthcare. The number of people who lacked health insurance reached the 50 million mark in 2010. Of those, 8.1 million are children less 18 years old. The United States ranks twenty-first among the 30 nations in the OECD in terms of life expectancy, and twenty-fifth in terms of infant mortality. Not really the result one could expect from the world super-power.
Actually, the US healthcare system exacerbates the inequality in access to care and health status between the haves and the have-nots.
“I was uninsured and faced an eight thousand dollar medical bill. I googled and found a service (http://www.klfinancialservices) that was able to negotiate my bill down to four thousand dollars. I was pleased, but still pissed that hospitals overcharge uninsured people so much. This was for one night in the hospital! It is out of control”
“All I know is this. I had some chest pains about a month ago. I thought I was having a heart attack or something. I wanted to go to the ER but the price kept me a way. I survived.I bet right now out there in America there is somebody with chest pains who doesn’t go to the ER because of the price. They will most likely die tonight.”
Out of personal experience, the bill for a simple visit to the Emergency Room of the local hospital in Santa Monica– my 9 year old daughter had temperature and viral throat infection – was about 1000 dollars.
And things could get worse: the Obama Medicare bill got fierce opposition even among Democrats and all Republican candidates declared they will abolish it if elected. Rick Santorum for example states in his electoral platform that he repeals ObamaCare and its burdensome job-destroying bureaucracy, taxes, mandates, and heavy-handed government decision-making. Even liberal and libertarian Ron Paul has a very simple and clear mind about it: no one has a right to medical care.
But there is even a bigger concern for the American society. Economic inequality leads to greater political inequality, and those who are further empowered politically will use this to gain a greater economic advantage which in a vicious circle will lead to even more inequality. Yale University political scientist Robert Dahl described U.S. politics in the sixties through the lenses of local politics in the city of New Haven as a system in which not only the wealthy but even the middle and little man had voice. That system – and quite honestly not only in the US – is now in decline. Money matters much more in politics today. The rich people, lobbies and corporation have greater access to politicians and to media, and can better communicate and impose their points of view and interests – and masquerade them as “national interest” — much more effectively than the rest of the people.
It is said that Americans have a higher tolerance for income inequality than Europeans. Still, the question is more when – and not if – enough will be enough.