Wealth, Health, and the Poor

The best general measure of the national economic health is equality, not how much money we spend (GDP). This is expressed by the Gini Coefficient, which is especially useful in comparing ourselves to our peers. The Gini ranges from 0.0, perfect equality where everyone has the same amount of wealth, to 1.0, perfect inequality where one person has all the wealth. In essence, Gini gives us a number that tells us how well our democracy is doing.

At present, our democracy is failing. At a Gini score of .486, we have the greatest inequality of all countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). If we are to restore a democracy worthy of the name, we must markedly improve our Gini score.

At present, our democracy is failing.
Our Gini score is the worst of all OECD nations.

The biggest block to specifically fixing inequality is the Republican worldview that says people are poor because they deserve to be poor, not because they are grossly underpaid for the crucial full-time work they do. Basically, the wealthy haven’t a clue about this. They believe that poor persons can simply bootstrap themselves not just out of poverty, but into wealth, and the only reason they don’t is that they are naturally lazy. Not many beliefs are farther from the truth. It is this belief that allows Republican capitalists to do everything they can to minimize wages and direct all wealth to the rich.

Keeping wages low is a capitalist imperative, because it improves the profit that goes only to owners, not to workers. Papa John’s Pizza and other corporations angrily increased their prices or fired workers after the recent election, declaring that it’s in retaliation for Obamacare. Such employers never consider that providing health care insurance for their underpaid workers is the right thing to do, that they need health care like everyone else, or that their firm has enjoyed an unfair advantage over more responsible employers. Their attitude is bad for the country, bad for equality, bad for democracy.

The concerns of the poor are not well represented in our legislative establishments. A large majority of Congress are millionaires, who are more concerned about re-election and their own wealth than they are about low income workers. Mitt Romney demonstrated the naivety of the rich when he said that everyone had health care because the poor could always go to the emergency room, and that nobody dies from lack of health care. But the ER is not health care, and more than a hundred Americans die from lack of health care every day. It’s noteworthy that the improvement in life expectancy for retirees seen in recent decades has gone almost exclusively to the wealthy, no doubt because they can afford excellent health care.

The standard Republican worldview
says that only the rich are deserving;
anyone not rich is simply lazy and undeserving.
Few beliefs are farther from the truth.

Disabusing such people of their false beliefs is not so easily accomplished. First, these are items of the Republican faith, and faith is not easily shaken, even when it cannot be supported by the facts. Second, people who were born into privilege rarely experience hardship, of being unable to buy something essential, of putting aside a dream they can’t afford, of finding their world collapsing around them because of an illness, of having no place to turn. They can’t imagine why anyone would be in that position, since it can never happen to them.

There is a reason for every ordinary job. Every person who has a job performs a public service, and the public would be less well off if the work weren’t done. In other words, all work is a genuine contribution to the health and welfare of the nation, and pay should reflect this fact.

All jobs at the lower income level
are grossly underpaid.
This is where injustice occurs.

In the wealthiest country in history there should be no one whose wages cannot lift her out of poverty. This is where the injustice happens, because virtually all jobs at the lower income level are grossly underpaid. Nobody can live on them, let alone pay for health insurance. Nobody earning minimum wage can even afford rent anyplace in the country. This is where inequality must be addressed, not at the top end.

That is why Living Wage is so important. If we are to have the democracy envisioned in our founding documents, it is not the rich who are the appropriate measure of our national wellbeing, but those with the lowest incomes. Far too many can’t work their way out of poverty.

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