IN a Bertelsmann Foundation study on social justice released this fall, the United States came in dead last among the rich countries, with only Greece, Chile, Mexico and Turkey faring worse. Whether in poverty prevention, child poverty, income inequality or health ratings, the United States ranked below countries like Spain and South Korea, not to mention Japan, Germany or France.
It was another sign of how badly Americans are hurting their middle class. Wars, famine and violence have devastated middle classes before, in Germany and Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe. But when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, a social structure roughly similar to what existed before would always resurface.
No nation has ever lost an existing middle class, and the United States is not in danger of that yet. But the percentage of national income held by the top 1 percent of Americans went from about 10 percent in 1980 to 24 percent in 2007, and that is a worrisome signal.
So before the United States continues on its current road of dismantling its version of the welfare state, of shredding its social safety net, of expanding the gap between rich and poor, Americans might do well to glance south. The lesson is that even after a large middle class emerges, yawning inequities between rich and poor severely strain any society’s cohesion and harmony.
Indeed, the historic inequalities that linger have produced singular traits of national character, handed down between generations, that must change if these societies are to continue equalizing their wealth and realizing their promise. Brazilian fatalism, Chilean insularity and Mexican individualism are being slowly shed. And that is good; these traits should be jettisoned completely if these societies ever hope to achieve the level of equality for which the United States has been their model.
And yet, as all of this is occurring, the United States — that epitome of the middle-class society, of the egalitarian dream that pulled millions of immigrants away from Latin America — has begun to go Latin American. It is in a process of structural middle-class shrinkage and inequality expansion that has perhaps never occurred anywhere else (again, possibly excepting Argentina).
WHICH leads to a question for the United States: why would you allow that to happen, when we in Latin America can show you how difficult it is to achieve the kind of exemplary middle class that you invented in the first place, and that gave you such economic power and social cohesion — at least since the 1920s? Especially when we all know its existence is crucial to preserving some of the best traits of your own national character.What Latin America Can Teach Us (New York Times)
Latins are aware of class, and don't buy into the nonsense Americans do about how "everyone's middle class," or the Horatio Alger "anyone can be rich" horseshit. They also don't have the aggressive media control, and haven't become apathetic the way Americans have. Latin America may end up a far more desirable place to live than the United States in the very near future. One quibble: I would disagree with the part where he says Americans aren't in danger of losing the middle class yet. In my opinion, and I think there's plenty of data to back this up, it's a fait accompli.
Jorge Castañeda on NPR's ON Point