TO TALK of the poor in the United States is apparently bad politics. During the past presidential campaign, neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney used the word “poor.” The reason seems to be that Americans were taught by former President Ronald Reagan and others that there is a good chance poor people who receive welfare payments, including widows and single mothers, may be swindlers. The suspicion spreads from welfare recipients to cover all poor people. Reagan talked of a so-called “Welfare Queen” who lived in Detroit—if I remember correctly—and had amassed cars, houses and jewelry as a welfare recipient. He never produced the woman.
American politicians talk now of the “middle class.” Obama is described by his own people as “the defender of the middle class.” As a result, I believe, his campaign speeches lacked fire and integrity, because he didn’t talk of the poor and suffering Americans he knows, including a great number of his fellow Afro-American people. It’s hard to feel passionate when you talk of the poor as “those who wish to enter the middle class,” which he did in the first debate. The historical weight of the poor people and their suffering, their central role in Scripture and their struggles to have a better life all vanish.
Romney, for his part, appeared to have lost interest in the economically lower 47 percent of Americans. This is a long way from the Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican President Richard M. Nixon, who all backed the “war on poverty” of the 1960s-1970s. The United States is moving away from traditions of fair play and compassion.
Another word no longer heard in American political debates is “inequality.” The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 focused the nation’s attention on the great and growing gap between the incomes of the top 1 percent of the working population and the remaining 99 percent. Data on this gap are still coming in: The Los Angeles Times reported recently (Sept. 12) that the present halting recovery in the United States “pushed to a new high the income gap between the country’s richest and poorest citizens.” For a time Obama spoke of this gap and called for fairness, but he soon got off that subject when his political foes pounced on him, accusing him of “class warfare” and being “a socialist.” Observers from other countries may wonder how a democracy like the United States can have a serious election campaign without talking about inequality of income and the inequality of political power to which it invariably leads. On the just concluded US election campaign, Al Jazeera News reported that the top 1 percent of the United States’ richest persons donate more to the presidential campaigns than the 150 million poorest people. What happens to democracy?
All Filipino politicians talk of the poor here, but I don’t believe any major political figure has talked of inequality in income between the richest and poorest and of narrowing the gap, though the rate of inequality of income measured by the Gini Curve is as great here as in the United States. China is now as bad as the United States in this matter. The same question must be asked here: “Can we have serious political discussion in the Philippines if people do not examine income inequality and work for greater equality and fairness?”
Some of my friends have told me that such a discussion will eventually be needed, but for the present it may be wiser to stick with a very simple work plan for the economy, such as President Aquino’s anticorruption strategy, at least until the economy gets its legs under it in a few years. But the trouble with this caution is that the economic pie grows more unequal as it increases in size.
What to do? Perhaps we can begin with one or two dramatic gestures, actions or resolutions that teach the value of moving toward greater equality and actually do some concrete good for the poor.
A visitor from Brazil told us recently that that country’s former president, “Lula” da Silva, once ordered that for every sum of money given for infrastructure, another amount equal to 2 percent of that infrastructure money be given to help the poor. It doesn’t sound like very much—only 2 percent—but in reality 2 percent of the country’s infrastructure funds would be a great deal of money and would do wonderful things for the poor. Such a practice teaches people that the poor need and deserve more than bare survival. It is compassionate giving. It is on top of money already budgeted for the poor. Maybe President Aquino can do something similar here. It would teach the values needed for democracy and narrow the income gap.
Great amounts of money will be spent on flood control infrastructure from now to 2035 under the government’s new flood control project. Can the President order that an amount equivalent to 2 percent of that figure be given to the poor? This 2 percent will be in addition to the money already allotted to them for resettlement. It can be used to improve schools and medical services for all poor people, create public work programs, enhance poor people’s diets, etc. The President can describe it as a small step toward a more just and fair Philippines. A small step for the President, a great step for all poor men, women and children, and for the country.
Can he also order that labor-intensive methods of construction be used? The International Labor Organization claims that the number of people employed will increase by 25 percent if we do so.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [[email protected]].