A friend sent me a link to this 1964 cover story by Der Spiegel: Armut in USA ("Poverty in the US"). This was during the peak of Germany's postwar Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle) when the nation was attempting to achieve the same degree of prosperity as America - "das Land, wo Milch und Honig fliessen." (the land of milk and honey). So it came as a shock for many Germans that prosperity was but a distant dream for millions of citizens in "the promised land".
The article covers the persistent poverty of the rural south and the urban ghettos - the main targets of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The Spiegel journalists write about the problem of hunger in America, something that Americans were shocked to learn about in a nation of unprecedented abundance. And, most importantly, the article pokes holes in the myth of the ever-exapanding American middle class:
Das läßt sich auf die überspitzte Formel bringen: Die Armen wurden weniger, aber ärmer - gemessen am steil ansteigenden Standard der begüterten Bevölkerungsmehrheit. Die Kluft zwischen arm und reich ("income gap") ist in den USA nicht zugeschüttet worden. (The results can be summarized as follows: the poor are fewer in number but poorer when measured against the rising living standards of the more affluent majority. The gap between rich and poor has not been filled in the US.)
The article goes into some detail into the unequal distribution of wealth in the US which - in 1964 - left about one-fifth of the population in poverty. The sad fact is that in the last 46 years the gap between rich and poor has only grown in the US, a trend which- thanks to decades of Republican control in Washington - has concentrated wealth in the hands of the super-rich:
The top 5 percent of Americans own more than half of all wealth. In 1998, they owned 59 percent of all wealth. Or to put it another way, the top 5 percent had more wealth than the remaining 95 percent of the population, collectively.
The bottom 20 percent basically have zero wealth. They either have no assets, or their debt equals or exceeds their assets. The bottom 20 percent has typically accumulated no savings.
- The top 1 percent of American families control 95% of all non-home wealth.
- The richest 10% of Americans control 85% of all outstanding stocks and financial assets and 90% of all business assets.
- During the Bush administration, income inequality accelerated at an alarming rate: economists have calculated that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.
- As of 2007, the top decile of American earners pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that's higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the 'roaring" 1920s.
- The top 1 percent incomes captured half of the overall economic growth over the period 1993-2007
Since the Spiegel article appeared in 1994, German citizens on the average have fared much better than their American counterparts. But there is one thing that hasn't change much at all. The Spiegel article refers to the response of US Republicans to the War on Poverty:
Für einige Republikaner war es eher ein Windmühlenkrieg. Sie beriefen sich auf den Bibelspruch "Ihr habt allezeit Arme bei Euch" (For some Republicans this is just jousting at windmills. They refer to the Bible passage: "The poor will always be with you." )