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SHOULD POVERTY BE MADE UNCONSTITUTIONAL IN THE U.S.?
By ARNOLD A. McMAHON
Is there poverty in the U.S.? That is easy to answer. Yes. How bad is it? Very bad. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 1 in every 6 Americans (16%) lived in poverty in 2012. For a family of 4, this is less than $23,050 in yearly income.
Even worse than that, 1.2% lived in extreme poverty in 2011 – including 2.8 million children. Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $2 per day – before any government help. After buying a 99c hamburger, with tax one has less than $1 per day for everything else – clothes, housing, health care, education.
In 2009, there were 643,000 homeless people in the U.S. On average, one third of these slept on the streets at night.
Can the U.S. afford that all its citizens have adequate food, clothing, housing, shelter, health care and education?
Total global wealth is estimated to be around $200 trillion. The U.S. share of that is approximately $50 trillion – or 25%. With a population of 310,000,000, that averages out to about $161,290 for every man, woman and child. Of course, that is not the way it is. 1% of the population owns about 50% of the wealth. The super rich – those who make more than $2 million a year – control 10% of the economy even though they comprise only 1/10th of the population, The 400 richest people in the U.S. own about 1/8th of its wealth.
So, without bedeviling you with all the math, if the U.S. was divided into families of 4 and each was paid a living wage of $22 an hour – or $45,760 a year – the total would only come to approximately $3 ? trillion. That would still leave $46 ? trillion left. Thus, the answer is clearly yes, the U.S. can afford that all its citizens have adequate food, clothing, housing, health care and education.
Can poverty be eradicated without a constitutional amendment?
The simple answer again is no. Poverty has not been eradicated and shows absolutely no sign of being eradicated. Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964. It is clearly a war that has not been won. This year, the Brookings Institute declared that income inequality is increasing in the U.S., indeed, becoming permanent, and social mobility is decreasing. Given the massive power of vested interests, the only viable solution is to make the eradication of poverty a constitutional mandate – a civil right that no Congress or court can take away.
What arguments favor a constitutional amendment? Here are two.
The first one and most powerful one is the moral argument. Each human being, as Immanuel Kant, so beautifully said, possesses an intrinsic dignity and therefore can never be treated merely as a means but always as an end-in-itself. Therefore, each human being is entitled to a standard of living commensurate with that dignity – namely, adequate food, clothing, housing, health care and education. For example, employees enable employers to have a livelihood. Likewise, employers should enable employees to have a livelihood by providing a living wage – not a minimum wage because there are no minimum human beings. The Declaration of Independence stated it somewhat differently, but the message is the same. Each person has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When one has to struggle every day to put food on the table in rundown housing, that is hardly life, not very free, and certainly not conducive to pursuing happiness.
A second argument is one that businesses should embrace. When one makes minimum wages or less, one can only make minimum purchases. That is not good for business. When somebody makes a living wage, that person has a lot more buying power. This is another example of where good business is good ethics. Henry Ford demonstrated this years ago in January 1914, when he doubled his workers’ salaries to $5 a day. By doing so, he enabled many to be able to afford to buy his Model T cars.
What arguments are against such a constitutional amendment? Here are two.
The first one is against trying to get a constitutional amendment because it is claimed that it will never pass. Of course, if one accepts that, then one guarantees failure. If one does not accept that, it does not guarantee success, but it leaves the door open. It should be noted that down through history, possibly the strongest weapon in the arsenal of the powerful has always been pessimism. If they could convince people that something was not possible, it would become impossible. If somebody had convinced George Washington that fighting the British was a losing cause, then the U.S. would still be a British colony. If Gandhi had believed those who said that gaining independence was impossible, India too would still be a British colony. If Nelson Mandela had believed those who said that getting rid of apartheid was impossible, there would still be apartheid.
The second argument is that it would cause prices to rise if employers had to pay a living wage. There is some truth to this, but it is important to know what this truth is. If McDonald’s, for example, had to pay $22 an hour to its employees, the price of a hamburger would rise – even though McDonald’s made a profit of $5.4 billion last year. The real question is by how much? McDonald’s could answer that, but it would not rise astronomically because the competition in the market place would control prices. Furthermore, more people could buy their product because they have more disposable income. When Henry Ford raised the daily wage to $5 a day, it not only did not cause economic catastrophe, but the exact opposite. It is credited with giving birth to the American middle class, and to a great overall expansion of the U.S. economy. There is no doubt that the same will happen again if all Americans are paid a living wage.
What would be some of the most important requirements of a constitutional amendment banning poverty?
First, clearly requiring a living wage. How would that be determined? That is not as hard as it seems. MIT has already calculated what a living wage would be in most parts of the country. For simplicity sake, there should be one national living wage.
Second, a tax structure to ensure that there is no poverty anywhere. This would mean that those in the top wealth brackets would pay more. As inequality in the country has been growing apace, this is long overdue.
Third, a health care system that is not so wasteful. The proportion of GDP spent on health care in the U.S. is around 17.9% and growing, because it is so wasteful. Germany’s high quality health care is only 11.1% of GDP. It has an infant mortality rate of 3 per 1000. The U.S. is 8 per 1000.
Fourth, equal funding for each student through K-12. Currently, rich districts get a much higher quality of education, leading to even greater disparity.
Conclusion: Much work needs to be done. But the U.S. will be a much better country if poverty is outlawed. We have the resources to do it. All we need is the will to do it. So, let us just do it.
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