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.
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.”
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.