The Rich and the Poor

Some weeks back, a fellow St Mary’s College Old Boy created a group on Whatsapp for some of those who were in our year group.  For those who do not know, Whatsapp is an Instant Messaging application for your phone.  Anyway, one of the big topics in the group has been around the shrinking middle-class and the perception, rightly or wrongly, that those who have, care little about those who do not have.

There is little doubt that this is perhaps one of the bigger debates facing our generation.  After decades of progress in reducing social inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is concern that it is on the increase again.  Statistically speaking the Gini coefficients (economic measure of social inequality within a nation) does suggest that inequality is on the increase in the US and the UK.

In the United States, the plight of the middle class has been the subject of much focus during the Presidential election.  Documentaries like David Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman and those from Michael Moore have demonstrated that for many, the American dream is a delusion as the health and education systems are biased against those with fewer advantages.  Both in the UK and in the US, governments have responded to the economic slowdown by making legal immigration more difficult, and increases in emigration have been noticed and discussed in some media. American Tax Singapore

In Trinidad, after the protests by residents of East Port of Spain and Laventille, I saw so much online commentary about residents being lazy and about them suffering from some sort of dependency-syndrome which is considered to be the fault of the policies of previous administrations.  Some social observers remind us that ‘the poor’ are always with us but that during economic slowdowns it is natural for the stress associated with austerity measures to fall disproportionately on their shoulders.  After all, it is those who are not wealthy that benefit more from government social services such has public health care and public education, as well as the various social programs.

Regardless, there is a strong correlation between social inequality and social disorder.  Author John R Bradley makes the point that if we were to look at a graph of the world food price index over the last seven years, we would see two massive spikes, one in 2008 and the other in 2011.  These spikes match almost exactly with the worst global riots.  In a recent article, Bradley goes on to cite the New England Complex Systems Institute, whose study suggests that with a food price surge, more global political violence is all but inevitable.  Of course none of this is really new as the proof of the link between food prices and revolution is written in history, for those with an eye to see it.   Bradley references the 1848 European revolutions, long regarded as the result of brave new political ideas about freedom, and points to a bad harvest in 1847 which saw a massive food price shock in Austria, France, Hungary, Prussia and Switzerland the next year.  Revolutions followed.  At the same time, there was no such price shock in Scandinavia, England, Russia or Spain — and no revolutions.   Bradley concludes that while food inflation may not provide the brains for an insurrection, it does supply the brawn.

For those who live comfortably, it is easy to forget that for wealthier households, the food bill is a smaller percentage of their overall income, so food inflation of over 20% impacts on them less.  There are some leaders that understand this.  I am reliably told that a former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago once called a secret meeting with business leaders in Port of Spain.  He explained that inequality was rising and unless both government and private sector worked together to address it, not even the highest walls could protect us from the consequences. 

I remembered the report I heard about that alleged meeting as my wife showed me a Facebook comment from a former neighbour of ours last weekend.  While we lived in Trinidad, we lived in a gated community with high walls.  Our former neighbour used Facebook to speculate that hiding in the bubble created by gated communities is not the solution and that we ignore the greater reality at our own peril.   

Returning to our St Mary’s past students group on Whatsapp, its composition is like that of our College itself.  At CIC there were boys from quite prestigious backgrounds and boys from humble backgrounds – all studying and playing together.  Whatever the solution to the issues facing us, an important part must include everyone stepping out of their bubbles to engage with fellow citizens.

Despite our current challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope that we will all enjoy a brighter tomorrow.  Read more on derrenjoseph.blogspot.com

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