Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Refugees of Relative Poverty

Yesterday a study showed that the “gap between rich and poor in the UK is wider now than 40 years ago”. Furthermore, Peter B sends me this New York Times article by Bob Herbert, which includes the following extraordinary statistic:

In 2008, a startling 91.6 million people — more than 30 percent of the entire U.S. population — fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is a meager $21,834 for a family of four.

Less than 200%! Startling indeed. Relative Poverty is devastating the western world. Think of England sent its roving reporter Neil Hacksworth to the Mexican-US border…


Mexico steps up border security as millions flee relative poverty
by Neil Hacksworth

Close to the nation's busiest highway border crossing, from San Diego County to Tijuana, a border fence cuts across a park and a beach before stretching into the surf of the Pacific Ocean. This is the westernmost edge of the demarcation line in Mexico’s war against unauthorised immigration, and we are heading into a militarised zone.

On the US side of the fence, stretching back into Californian wastelands as far as the eye can see, is a chaotic automobile township - a temporary citadel of winnebagos, motor homes, campervans, bus conversions. Even SUVs with reclining seats, which people use for makeshift beds. It is five o’clock in the afternoon. Men gather round gas barbecues and swig from cans of Bud. We pass a middle-aged woman, overweight and squeezed into a deckchair; she is reading a paperback and I see a tear roll down her left check. The heat is oppressive and the air is shrill with the cries of children throwing footballs and Nintendo DS consoles. There is no education for children here except the school of hard knocks, and no laws govern them save the harsh law of the jungle. These are the kids that the US left behind and that Mexico doesn’t want.

Every night 1,800 American men, women and children will attempt to cross the border illegally. Every night, one of them will be shot and killed. These are the Refugees of Relative Poverty.

Tipping point
For years, ordinary American citizens, concerned at the widening gulf between the income of the average US family and that of the richest 1% of the population, have been crossing the border into Mexico in search of a more egalitarian lifestyle. But what was once a trickle has become a flood, and the Mexican authorities which at one time turned a blind eye or even actively encouraged the uneconomic migrants have tightened up the borders and are now taking a very hard line. As we draw near to the fence with our cameras, a Mexican border patrol truck appears atop the hill, to our rear. A man gets out and watches us through binoculars. He carries a semi-automatic weapon.

But what caused this mass exodus, which every day threatens to turn into a humanitarian crisis? What led to the emptying of the once-thriving suburbs of San Diego, San Francisco and of the towns and cities all across America? It is widely accepted that the tipping point was a seminal op-ed in the New York Times by journalist Bob Herbert, in which he revealed the shattering statistic that almost 30% of American families earned less than double the official federal poverty line. The news spread like wildfire across the online social networks of the country and the protests and riots that followed are well documented. Suddenly, America had woken up.

Many of the refugees I speak to at the border crossing confirm this. “It was like the scales fell from my eyes,” says Hank Schweinberger, who has brought his family all the way from Denver in an RV which he paid for by selling virtually all of his possessions, including a brand new TiVo HD DVR system. “As soon as I read that [article by Bob Herbert] I got out my calculator. I found that even if I worked until I was 500 years old, I still wouldn’t earn 80% of the income of earners in the first four percentiles in the country. I showed my wife the calculations….Yeah we wept a little, then we got angry. Then we decided to just get out.”

Global phenomenon
Hank Schweinberger is an angry, desperate man. He’s not alone. Hank’s story echoes not just across America, but throughout the developed world. The UK is second only to the US when poverty is calculated not in any normally understood sense but by taking the median income for a couple with two children and creating a ranking of those up to the age of 17 who live in households with earnings of less than 50% of that total.

Consequently, the expansion of the EU and the granting of free movement across member states in May 2004 saw a dramatic economic migration, as hundreds of thousands of Britons poured into Poland and other former Soviet states, where relative poverty is significantly lower.

Official figures indicate that 656,395 Britons were accepted into the Polish welfare system between 1 May 2004 and 30 June 2007. However, this figure is only indicative; unofficial estimates of British nationals in Poland are much higher. Before the Iron Curtain came down, western populations had lived in ignorance of the extent of their relative poverty compared to its almost total absence in the communist states. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the unprecedented access to information and to esoteric definitions of what constitutes ‘wealth’ meant that governments could no longer conceal the relative truth.

But behind the theories lie real tragedies. In 2003 the governments of Cuba and the US both blamed each other for the apparent deaths of 25 Americans believed drowned while trying to get to Cuba on a makeshift yacht.

For the children
We say our goodbyes to Hank and his young, beautiful, frightened family: just one more family amongst hundreds of thousands. Soon, perhaps, millions. We start heading back, away from the ocean and the fence, along the road in the darkness. Hank’s parting words resonate in my mind. “Ultimately, this isn’t about me or my wife. We had to think about our children, and the kind of future they’re going to have. We don’t want our kids growing up in a world where potentially they could earn less than 500% of the earnings of the sixtieth percentile of earners. We’re just in search of a more coterminous life.”

We drive on. Suddenly, there are trucks across the road with bright lights pointed at us, so bright that, for a moment, we can't see. As we approach, slowly, guards lounge on the fenders. Not a word is uttered. We pass by and are swallowed up by the night.


Gaw said...

I feel for the victims at the other end. It must be very uncomfortable to sit on such a steep pinnacle. In fact, I was reading just the other day about how London bankers are fleeing to Switzerland where presumably they can feel closer to the median earner.

worm said...

"In 2003 the governments of Cuba and the US both blamed each other for the apparent deaths of 25 Americans believed drowned while trying to get to Cuba on a makeshift yacht."

Swiftian brilliance! V. jealous of your talents!

malty said...

Steady on Brit, remember Orson Wells radio play, hope none of our cousins across the puddle have logged on.

It's already happened here. For years Irish building tradesmen came to Britain looking for work, over the past eight years the trend was reversed.

Walk into any of the automobile manufacturers styling and design studios anywhere in the world, from Toyota's in Nice to Volvo in Mexico city and you will hear Sheffield, Scottish, Kent, Geordie or Manchester accents, where would they earn a crust in the UK.

Harman said....
"But for the sake of the right of every individual to reach their full potential, for the sake of a strong and meritocratic economy and to achieve a peaceful and cohesive society, that is the challenge that must be met," she added.
Lying hypocrite.

Anonymous said...

Listening to even the ostensibly moderate left on this issue can give one an alarming glimpse of a collapse into barbarism. A perfectly decent chap in our office spent a week's holiday in Cuba last month. I was hassling him rather lightly about supporting totalitarianism, and he told me he really liked Cuba because it was safe (!!!) and the people were so friendly. It's true they were very poor, he allowed, but they were happy because they were "equitably poor". I was so stunned I could only reply that I preferred Florida because it is inequitably wealthy.

Second tale. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against corporate campaign financing on the grounds that corporations were legal persons with constitutional rights. Now, it is perfectly reasonable to argue corporations should not have constitutional rights. In fact, I doubt they should. But the debate on a lot of leftist sites is quickly morphing into an attack on the notion that corporations have any separate legal personality at all. As this and the invention of banking are probably the two most important and univerally-recognized factors that led us out of medieval subsistence, it's hard not to conclude they hate prosperity and inequality at any level and yearn for a Utopia where we are all 11th century market gardeners with no kings & castles to protect us. No wonder so many people lurch right in middle age.

Nige said...

Great stuff Brit - and true. The world is indeed turned upside down.

Ian Wolcott said...

This is wonderful, Brit.

David said...

Just a quick gloss on Peter's otherwise admirable comment, because the Supreme Court's decision in Citizen's United is being almost universally misreported.

1. The Court did not hold that corporations were "citizens" with "rights." It held that the First Amendment was a limit on Congress's ability to abridge free speech ("Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech") and that corporate speech wasn't outside of this limitation.

2. Corporations cannot contribute to political campaign. What they can do is speak in their own voice, making arguments for positions and candidates they favor. Congress upheld Congress's power to prohibit corporate campaign contributions.

Brit said...

Ah, thanks David.

Also thanks all, especially Worm - "V. jealous"... no writer can ask for more...

Hey Skipper said...


erp said...

Nice send off.

BTW - we spent a month driving all over Mexico, most of it away from the tourist areas. The difference between one side of the border and the other is like the difference between a moonscape and the Garden of Eden, especially the drive from Mexico City north into Brownsville TX. After miles and miles of dry brown fields and complete desolation, the huge green farms with their rolling irrigation machines on the US side actually dazzled your eyes.

The people were friendly and dirt poor -- not below-the-poverty-line as "poor" people are designated here, but third world poor -- we saw women washing clothes in the river within sight of the big hotels in Acapulco and old trucks burning wood puffing across the mountains.

The cities in Mexico were bustling and the people looked prosperous, so I'd say that the disparity between rich and poor in Mexico as in most of the third world (and second world) is far greater than that of the first world. We drove all over the US and Canada many times and never did we see people washing clothes in the rivers, not even on Indian reservations. The downtrodden on this side of the border must do with laundromats.