Much of the world has been captivated by natural disasters in the last few months. In the US we watched multiple and massive hurricanes rip through with unprecedented destruction from Houston to the Caribbean to Florida. In the same period hundreds died in the earthquake in Mexico. More than a thousand died in the flooding in South Asia. Thousands more were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by the chaotic flooding in west Africa. In mid November the border regions of Iran and Iraq were hit by a series of massive earthquakes.
These tragedies and the scale of their impact upon human life reminded me of an article I wrote several years ago. The point of that article was simple. We have to understand the issues that inflate the death counts and human displacement in these events go beyond the weight of the natural disaster. Due to corruption and inequality throughout the world the poor play a much larger role as victims in these tragedies than the rich do. The places where cheaper housing and greater likelihood of wages can be found are where societies’ poorest populations converge to eke out their existence. These are also the places where infrastructure, building codes, and general durability of existence is weakest. The story of human loss within natural disasters is as much a story of economic inequality and political corruption as it is climate change. In many, if not most instances, victims in these disasters are victimized twice – first by the corruption and inequality within their own societies and then by the natural disasters.
Almost four hundred people were killed in the earthquake in Mexico last month. That number could have been less if proper building codes had been enforced. Those involved in the construction did not have up to date licenses (read corruption) and those who purchased the faulty constructed housing were lower income.
These pictures of inequality surround us and their effects operate as the background to many of the major stories in the news today. Sir Richard Branson rode out Hurricane Irma in an underground wine cellar on his private Caribbean island, unscathed and fully insured from any effects of the massive storm. Meanwhile, many among the poorer classes did not flee the path of this summer’s hurricanes because they simply could not afford to do so. More often than not these victims of the natural disaster live in mobile homes or other housing completely incapable of withstanding the force of what nature unleashed over and over again in the last weeks of the summer.
This disparity is not normal and it makes these disasters not entirely natural. This is the economic inequality that defines the times we live in throughout the world. It is growing and its effects are becoming more obvious. Behind the headlines of many of the news stories that captivate our daily lives is the swelling reality of economic inequality. The natural disasters of 2017 are only one example.
American politics and media have been consumed with the recent budget debate moving through Congress. One side says President Trump’s budget will be a boon for the middle class, the other side says it borders on criminal activity by the amount of incentive it gives to the wealthy. Meanwhile in 2017 billionaires increased their combined global wealth by almost a fifth last year to a record $6 trillion– more than twice the GDP of the United Kingdom. There are now 1,542 billionaires across the world, after 145 multi-millionaires saw their wealth tick over into nine-zero fortunes last year, according to the UBS / PwC Billionaires report. This increase in wealth among the super rich took place under the policies of former President Obama’s – not President Trump. The world’s liberal leaders have overseen as much economic disparity as the conservative.
Earlier in the year the Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare and the opioid crisis were leading the headlines. Here also we find stories of and pictures of economic inequality. The Lancet released a series of reports observing the different states of health between the rich and the poor. Included among the findings: the poorest 5% of Americans have experienced no gains in survival since 2001, while middle and high income Americans life expectancy have increased by two years. The gap in life expectancy between the richest 1 percent and the poorest 1 percent now stands at between 10-15 years. Some commentators have begun calling this the “death gap.” In addition, the poor are more likely to suffer from the risks of smoking, obesity, and the opioid epidemic than the rich. This disparity of risks is based upon the reality that the rich and the poor live in two different worlds. One is much safer, supported, enforced, and provisioned than the other.
Even the strange boycotts and debates surrounding professional sports in 2017 have behind them a reality of economic inequality. Two thirds of America’s NBA and NFL teams are owned by billionaires. Meanwhile most Americans can no longer afford tickets to see their favorite sports team events. While President Trump and his base contested whether one should stand or kneel during the national anthem, could there have been deeper seated financial realities at play here? Perhaps Americans were less concerned about the national anthem than the condescending scene of millionaires preaching to them about social issues.
President Trump enjoys touting the soaring stock market as evidence of what his presidency has given to the American economy. Few middle class Americans gain their income or wealth from the stock market. The soaring stock market is a benefit primarily to the wealthy. Before the 2007 market crash 65% of Americans were invested in the stock market. Today that number is 54%. The reality is that for most of the middle class their primary source for wealth is their home. That is their largest and most valued asset.
Today however fewer Americans are buying homes than in the history of this generation. They are choosing to rent. Someone has to own the homes that are being rented though. A new trend being seen in the market is more banks, hedge funds and private equity firms (read “wealthy people” for all of groups) are investing in home ownership to gain in the growing profits of the rental market. Companies owned by the wealthy are buying resident properties which they are then renting to middle class America. This trend is more than a recalibration of who owns property in America. It is a recalibration of who is gaining benefits and wealth from the homes we live in. Owning a home was once part of the American dream. Middle class America is learning it is more affordable to rent the dream from the wealthy now.
These pictures of inequality are all around us. In the midst of the growing tension, political polarization, outrage and unrest in America we can look behind most headlines and observe an economic reality of growing disparity between the rich and the poor – or more specifically, between the rich and the middle class. In many instances Americans are living this experience and don’t realize it. This is not a story of Republican versus Democratic policies. It is a story of the changing shape of American society and a dangerous future for our economy.