Inequality is the new normal.
Most Monday evenings, I direct efforts at a church-supported food pantry in Austin, Texas. We distribute groceries to the underemployed and low-paid, seniors on fixed incomes, handicapped and homeless individuals, and parents of young children living in poverty. In January 2020, our eight-year-old food pantry had its busiest month – most people served – on record.
While many describe the economy as “good” and unemployment rates are at generational lows, the food pantry network of more than 60,000 service points in the US is sorely needed. New recommendations from the Trump administration to curtail SNAP benefits will only exacerbate the need for food pantries in the richest country in the history of the world, where one of every six children is food insecure.
The plights of inequality in larger cities have always been among us: beggars on street corners and people living under bridges. Back in the day, however, these signs of inequity were isolated and more hidden. As a kid, it was only when my father and I drove deep into Chicago – from our suburban home – that I witnessed such things.
For today’s children, the plights of inequality can be seen right around the next corner.
I wrote Just a Little Bit More in 2014 and argued that the current era of inequality – circa 1980 – would eventually bust. The previous eras of inequality, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, met their respective but different demises in the Progressive Era and the Great Depression.
More than a century ago, in the midst of the Gilded Age, economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.
By socio-economic markers, America is a deeply stratified country boasting the largest percentage of citizens having a net worth of more than $5 million. This category increased by more than 16 percent in 2018 giving America more than four times the number of residents in this bracket than any other country.
Americans are proud that ours is a country where you can make it – and make it rich. But increasingly, only a few Americans get to play that game. Forty years into this current era, social and economic inequalities in American society are becoming entrenched.
As inequality normalizes, America loses its status as a meritocracy – where people deservedly earn what they are worth. In eras of inequality, achievement is less determined by ability and talent, but by inherited wealth, favoritism, and a fixed system. As President Trump said to friends and supporters – fellow wealthy Americans – at his Mar-a-Lago club after signing the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act into law: “You all just got a lot richer.”
When our food pantry opened in the fall of 2013, we talked about “working ourselves out of a job.” We spoke of working alongside our client-neighbors to implement plans to mitigate food insecurity: job and education training, community gardens, meal sharing.
Naivete? In part, yes. (Our organization is following through with the first option plan as we now work with families in a “2-Gen” childcare program). It’s highly likely that we’ll see more busy months in 2020 at our food pantry distributions.
We live in the midst of a system that has entrenched social and economic inequalities. They will only be broken by an economic crash, like the Great Depression, or purposeful political actions, as occurred during the Progressive Era. Inequality doesn’t have to be normal. We can choose to change to current system.
Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).
Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.