The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate an unprecedented income gap between the richest and poorest Americans. Those figures are causing concern among social workers the disparity could have an impact on the overall well-being of American society.
How'd you get so Rich is the name of a cable TV program, starring comedienne Joan Rivers, that shows how some Americans got their wealth and what they have done with it. "Not one person that we interviewed did not have a great work ethic. These people do not say, 'Boo-hoo, poor me, it is a recession and I cannot do it,'" she said.
There are no programs, however, called, "How'd You Get So Poor?" Only statistics.
The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate the number of Americans in poverty is the highest in more than half a century. At the same time, the Census Bureau says, the income gap between the rich and poor in the United States has been widening in recent years, reaching the greatest disparity ever in 2009.
Economists say the recession is among the reasons for the growing ranks of the poor. The director of the non-governmental National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Henry Freedman, says erosion of the middle class is another. "The elimination of most of those jobs that people could get in factories, our factories are not there so much anymore. Other kinds of clerical work that is either being outsourced or is being replaced by technology that does it efficiently. Those people are competing with people below them for work," he said.
New York University Associate Professor of Social Work Robert Hawkins says people in impoverished areas lack some of the fundamental opportunities enjoyed by the rich. "What we have there are people who did not and do not have opportunities. So those folks cannot get an education, and so, what happens? They cannot get a job," he said.
Hawkins says those caught in poverty cannot count on networking with equally poor friends or neighbors for opportunities, because none of them have any. This, he adds, creates a vicious cycle of crime, teen pregnancy, chronic illness and early death.
Freedman says America's growing income gap could create a two-tiered society that loses its sense of community. "People struggling to get by, struggling to survive on the one hand, susceptible to demagoguery; and people on the other hand who put their resources to be separate from society, safe from society rather than participating fully in society," he said.
Robert Hawkins says the erosion of the middle class could affect the quality of those people the middle class has traditionally produced to teach, to enforce laws, to take care of the sick, and whose services also benefit the rich.
The professor says the wealthy have increasing political influence in America, not because they are gaming the system, but because the poor are not using it to full advantage. "If low-income people want more political power, they have got to organize, they have got to vote. That is the best and probably the only way," he said.
Hawkins says education and health are issues that need to be addressed to help the poor over the long term. What is needed immediately, he says, is renewed spending by both rich and poor alike, because money in circulation is what helps create jobs.
The problem, Hawkins notes, is that the poor have nothing to spend, and the rich have yet to overcome fears of economic uncertainty caused by the global economic recession.