The Gilded Age redux

In American Cities and the Great Divide (NYT, 5/22/07, Bob Herbert) describes how we’ve returned to a Gilded Age and cites an illustration where a high school student couldn’t imagine a dinner for 4 in NYC costing $500. The student asked incredulously, ‘How Much Can You Eat?’

Herbert points out that we’ve returned to a Gilded Age where for some the city is “paved for gold” and for others it is paved in “ash.”  Herbert observes that “One of the city’s five counties, the Bronx, is the poorest urban county in the nation. The number of families in the city’s homeless shelters is the highest it has been in a quarter of a century. Twenty-five percent of all families with children in New York City — that’s 1.5 million New Yorkers — are trying to make it on incomes that are below the poverty threshold established by the federal government.”   This in contrast to the NYC wealthy where: “…8 million residents of New York City, and roughly 700,000 are worth a million dollars or more. The average price of a Manhattan apartment is $1.3 million.” and “The annual earnings of the average hedge fund manager is $363 million.”

In The widening gap between rich and poor: Which might have something to do with the rising rate of incivility in 2007 America” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/23/07, Dan Simpson), Simpson tried to understand why their is complacency about these gaps.  Simpson describes the economic machines that are voraciously driven to get the poor having more credit cards and more shaky mortgages, but in many cases are insulated from the results when they turn financially sour — for example, the mortgage company has repackaged the mortgage and sold it off to another entity that has been compensated for the risk of non-repayment. Simpson laments that no one in the mortgage or real estate business really focuses on our common goal of home ownership, and regardless of defaults, they have made out well on the building, selling, and financing of millions of homes.

For sure some of our decline in caring about the other is wrapped up hand in hand with our declines in social capital.  And the link between levels of social capital and  equality is well established.  [This is true across countries, across U.S. States and across periods of time, as chronicled in Bowling Alone.]  This is because our level of trust in others (a close correlate of social capital) and our level of bridging social ties with others of different economic means determines whether we see the poor’s economic problems as OUR problem or THEIRS.

Simpson observed that “[t]here are still enough remnants remaining of the so-called Protestant ethic at the core of American society for some to say that if people are in trouble, it is because they deserve to be in trouble. The absolutely feckless way that some people — even employed people — get themselves mired in debt beyond their ability ever to dig themselves out serves as illustration.”

Simpson thinks that the ‘cheery’ financial news is a chimera:  the unemployment rate ignores those that have long given up on finding work, the stock market is buoyed by market traders seeking short-term gains, the inflation rate under-measures actual increases in goods.

He concludes that there may be a relation between the yawning gap between rich and poor and the increasingly incivility, such as “methamphetamine and other drug abuse, identity theft, home ‘invasions,’ the burning of churches, petty and grand thievery, extreme religiosity, gambling and child and elderly abuse that defies belief. Some of it looks like urban Victorian England. But so do our rich resemble the lords of those days in their economic distance from the poor.”  And Simpson quotes Officer Krupke (West Side Story) who observed ‘they are depraved because they are deprived.’


One response to “The Gilded Age redux

  1. Pingback: The Gilded Age (II): No Tooth for a Tooth « Social Capital Blog

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