Rich Country, Poor People

6-05-09, 9:40 am

Original source: The Guardian (Australia)

The USA is by all accounts the richest nation on Earth. Hardly surprising, really: rich natural resources allied to rapidly developing industry and commerce gave it a head start. Although it arrived late on the imperialist scene, its capitalists quickly made up for that by buying a chunk of France’s empire and seizing several chunks of Spain’s empire, including the Philippines and parts of the Caribbean and Central America.

Participation in two world wars and any number of smaller wars – from Greece to Korea, Vietnam to Grenada and on to Iraq – maintained the flow of payments for armaments, automobiles, planes, ships, explosives and all the paraphernalia of war, without the destruction that would have ensued had they been fought over the territory of the continental US itself.

However, although a goodly number of US corporations made themselves and their major shareholders rich from these assorted wars, this state of “permanent war” as George Bush once boastfully called it, the American people as a whole not only failed to share in these profits, they actually were impoverished by the galloping military expenditure.

Although the mark of a successful economy must surely be its capability to feed and house it populace, the United States is in the sorry position of not only having a huge sector of its population living in substandard housing or actually homeless, but having millions of its citizens avoid hunger only through the intervention of charities.

Each year, Feeding America, the USA’s leading (but by no means its only) domestic hunger-relief charity, provides food assistance to more than 25 million low-income people facing hunger in the United States, including more than 9 million children and nearly 3 million seniors.

The Feeding America network of more than 200 food banks across the country secures and distributes more than 900,000 tons of donated food and grocery products every year. The Feeding America network supports approximately 63,000 local charitable agencies that distribute food directly to Americans in need. Those agencies operate more than 70,000 programs including food pantries, soup kitchens, emergency shelters and after-school programs for kids in deprived areas.

A survey by Feeding America, using figures from the US Department of Agriculture, put the number of people in the US under age 18 who are food insecure, meaning they don’t regularly get adequate amounts of food necessary for a healthy life, at 12 million. Of those, 3.5 million are children under age 5.

Some of the survey’s results were truly shocking: in Louisiana, almost 25 percent of children under the age of 5 are food insecure. In oil-rich Texas, former president Bush’s home state, 22 percent of children under the age of 18 are food insecure.

Americans have it drummed into them all the time that getting government relief, their equivalent of our dole, is not a right but a mark of complete personal failure, like having to go to a “charity ward” in a hospital. Although reluctant, as a result, to accept government help, the number of Americans now receiving government food stamps (redeemable for groceries) is the highest since the program began in 1962 and stands at 32 and a half million!

That’s ten percent of the US population that are surviving on government handouts for food. And that figure would be much higher if all the people eligible for food stamps actually received them. (Feeding America estimates that more than a third of those eligible for food stamps don’t receive them.)

And, according to Feeding America, the number of families enrolled in the federal food stamp program who receive far less aid each month than what’s needed for a healthy diet is in the millions.

Meanwhile, if we look at housing, four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the US Gulf Coast thousands of survivors are still living in temporary caravans provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), caravans which have recently been found to contain dangerous amounts of formaldehyde.

In Louisiana, state programs have done little, even after all this time, to help residents to recover from Katrina. The Louisiana Road Home program, which is intended to provide large grants to homeowners for repair, has been beleaguered with red tape, bureaucratic delays and administrative problems, with people seeking grants having to suffer interminable waiting times before finally receiving one.

To add insult to injury, studies have found that two out of three Louisiana residents who did receive rebuilding money did not receive enough to cover the cost of the needed repairs! Renters didn’t fare any better: a government program intended to repair more than 18,000 damaged rental units has so far only got around to repairing some 1,200.

And a recent analysis by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Centre found that as of March 2009 nearly a third of New Orleans properties were empty or “blighted” (boarded up and left to become derelict, as seen in any number of inner cities in the US). “Even though blighted housing dropped by three percent in the past year, with 31 percent of all residential properties either unoccupied or blighted, New Orleans continues to lead all US cities in blight” (not a statistic to boast about).

Another form of “blight” bedeviling New Orleans is soaring rents. In the years since Katrina, average rents in the city have risen by more than 52 percent, and for many low-income residents the available apartments are simply not affordable. The homeless population has doubled since the hurricane, and case workers continue to find more and more people living in abandoned buildings.

Doesn’t sound like a rich country to me.