Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Wealth and the racial income gap

If hard work alone was sufficient, many of our societal problems would already be fixed. Many people come to our Nation's capital to make a difference. However, the hard truth with which I opened speaks in opposition to the fundamental workings of Washington, DC, culture. Often, people involved with the process are self-styled experts, obsessed with detail and willing to put in excessive hours for their crusades. Whether or not this is a healthy way to channel altruism and sacrifice is a very different issue. Working too hard at the expense of one’s emotional and physical well-being seems a little counter-intuitive. I know am not the first person to bring light to this.

Of course, I have my own reasons to be critical. The dominance of a competitive, workaholic attitude presents problems for me in my own religious activism. People desire a Spiritual life, but cannot easily pull themselves away from their jobs. It is difficult to form a sufficient leadership structure when people can only devote a certain amount of time and energy beyond their daily responsibilities. Community ought to be an ideal state, one where vocation does not jealously intrude.

The most profound irony of all is that many DC workers will put in upwards of eighty hours a week, or even more, in order to produce strategies to provide someone else an adequate and stable community. This rather curiously ends any possibility that they might have the same for themselves. Martyrdom is one particular manifestation of the beast.

If DC had a native religion, it would be predicated on a combination of sacrificial labor and a rough concept of Salvation by Works. Many precepts and recitations of faith would be included and required for all.

If I put my nose to the grindstone enough, I will win my way into heaven. Bad things won’t happen to me if I work harder. I have no tolerance for ignorance. Ignorance reminds me that I am imperfect. I’m an expert. I can’t be inadequate. I must be exacting and precise about every detail, no matter how inconsequential.

Beyond this world, it is often helpful to see the broad view. Washington is a rigidly hierarchical and racially segregated city. Much of the affluent white population is transitory. Setting up stakes here for short periods of time, the economically fortunate expect that their stay will pad a resume. They want greater education, or the experience of a time-limited job. But, whatever the case, one segment of the city’s population goes about its life obsessed with its own concerns. The world must be made safe for bureaucracy.

Take a peek underneath, and one sees a substantial, largely native African-American population, many of whom are the descendants of manumitted slaves. Several generations have lived in the area for years and years. One might call them the working poor. They drive buses, prepare food, distribute free newspapers, and provide much of the needed manual labor. Without them, the city would grind to a halt. Wealthier people hardly give them a second thought. I stride by them on my way from place to place. They consume only a few seconds of time, and inspire limited analysis. I imagine I am no different than most middle-class white residents of the area.

A 2009 report conducted by Insight Center for Community Economic Development provides a telling picture of the problem. “For every dollar of wealth owned by the average white family, the average family of color only owns 16 cents.”  Conclusions do not come more cut-and-dried than this. The tiny, highly specialized universes of non-profits and government agencies which call Washington home sometimes seem to be working at cross-purposes.

The report continues. “While our culture is obsessed with money and wealth, there is little popular understanding of why wealth matters. Having wealth is not the same as being wealthy.” The African-American comedian Chris Rock would heartily agree, no doubt adding a little more to it. In his words, “the white person who owns the color blue is wealthy.”

Here’s one more extremely telling fact. According to the aforementioned report, in 2007, the average net worth in a white household $170,400. Latino households had a net worth of $21,000. African-American households had a net worth $17,100. This was before the impact of the Great Recession, from which we are still emerging.

If we cannot end poverty in America, we will not end it in Africa. If the income gap does not shrink, poverty will persist everywhere. If access to credit and the ability to concentrate wealth is not granted, the average Federal Government employee is simply wasting his or her time. These are the realities that we have not wanted to own up to, usually because they require sacrifice beyond a single-minded devotion to policy wonkitude. Anyone can follow the system, but it takes a truly courageous person to stand it on its ear and try something new. Leaders are always welcome.

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