Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Pope Francis Is No More A Socialist Than Is...: Living In The Age of Francis of Buenos Aires

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”
- Archbishop Hélder Câmara, of Brazil -

"Is Pope Francis a Socialist?" My jaw dropped when I read the title of the cover article in the December 13, 2013, on-line edition of Newsweek over my iPad. I thought to myself, this pope is no more a socialist than is Barack Obama.

Let’s face it: in America, if you offer to turn on the light switch for someone because the room is dark, conservatives will call you a socialist.

Without a doubt, this first pope from Latin America (a child of European immigrants) is as everyone points out, humble and self-effacing. He has eschewed as the Newsweek article points out, a lot of “the pomp and circumstances and the lavish trappings of his office in the Vatican that helped conjure the awe and authority of popes down the centuries.”

He took the name of a humble saint, Francis of Assisi. Wanting to lead a simple life and lead by example, rather than live in the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace, he has opted to live in a modest guest house. You will not see Pope Francis wearing the traditional garb of the pope such as fur trimmed silk robes and red shoes, or dining on specially made dinnerware engraved with a unique papal seal to mark his tenure. There will be no papal limousine; Pope Francis prefers to ride around in a Ford Focus.

The new pope has been a godsend for the Catholic brand.

For more than a decade, the church has been under siege for its efforts to cover up child abuse by priests from all over the world and forced to pay out billions of dollars to settle legal claims by victims. The numbers of lapsed Catholics had been growing all over the world for decades. And, allegations of money-laundering at the Vatican bank is only the latest problem the church faces.

In steps Pope Francis, Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.”

Large numbers of Catholics think highly of this pope, feel good about being Catholic once again, and many lapsed Catholics are finding their way back to the church. Even non-Catholics – for example, Christian, Muslim, Jews, Hindu, and yup, even atheists – admire and are captivated by this pope.

While I think Pope Francis gestures of modesty and compassion are genuine, and his criticism of capitalism, neo-liberalism, growing inequality, and rampant materialism are on the mark, these things do not make him a socialist?

As a matter of fact, the pope has rejected the socialist label. So, what then is he? I don’t know. One thing I do know, however, is that Pope Francis presides over an institution that is in bed with the capitalists system he denounces.

The hype in the press about Pope Francis critique of the avariciousness at the heart of the global capitalist system is built on a denial of reality about the institution he leads and the role it plays in perpetuating this system. The Pope is the CEO of one of the leading players in the global capitalist economic system that he harshly criticizes.

The Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest and most successful businesses in the world. Just how much is the church worth? No one knows. The Catholic Church does not release figures on how much wealth it sits on or its vast web of businesses and investments; hence, the scope of its global business activities and its true value is actually unknown.

In the U.S. alone, nearly 100 million Americans identify themselves as Catholic. With strong encouragement from the Vatican and most importantly because Catholic immigrants often faced harsh discrimination during the 19th and 20th centuries by White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASP), American Catholics created a parallel society in America. Today, there are more than 6,800 Catholic schools (5 percent of all schools); 630 hospitals (11 percent of the nation’s total); and 244 colleges and universities. A number of the nation’s leading law schools, and top-ranked hospitals are Catholic.

The Economist estimated last year that in 2010, annual spending by the Vatican and church owned entities in the U.S. to be around $170 billion. No precise figures exist, but The Economist estimated that 57 percent of the church's spending in the U.S. went to Catholic health care networks, 28 percent went to colleges, 6 percent to day-to-day operations at local parishes and dioceses, and 2.7 percent to national charities. According to Slate, only 16 companies in the U.S. had more than $170 billion in total revenue (by comparison, Apple had total revenues in 2010 of $157 billion).

The church is also the largest charitable organization in the U.S., giving away, according to The Economist, through Catholic Charities USA and its subsidiaries about $5 billion in aid to the poor and serving more than 10 million people.

The church is of course a global institution, with extensive operations in the U.S., Europe, Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. Again, it’s really hard to nail down the real value of the church because the Catholic Church is not a transparent institution. Moreover, from a legal standpoint, there is no Catholic Church. The church is quite decentralized, with each diocese separately incorporated and with no formal ties to the Church in Rome. Most of the dioceses do not even share financial information with each other.

Taken as a whole, nonetheless, the assets of the global church are vast, accumulated over centuries, and range from art, real estate, church owned banks, academic institutions, breweries, vineyards, media companies and hospitals, to income derived from stock holdings, foundations, and bequests.

Several months ago, I watched a discussion on CNN about Pope Francis on a show hosted by Christian Amanpour and was, almost literally, walloped in the head by a comment comparing Pope Benedict to Pope Francis by Kean University History Department Chair, Christopher M. Bellitto:

“Benedict had a certain charisma, but it was the charisma of a university professor that you respected. Whereas Francis is the uncle you run up to and hug. Francis is the kind of Pope we need at this moment. Someone who is gentler. Someone who is more open. He is not going to change doctrine, but he is going to preach it differently.”

The church is struggling to find its place in a new world turned off by one scandal after another in the church. It has been losing membership and support in an increasingly secular Europe and North America. South America, Africa and Asia are places the church appears to be growing, and where its fundamentally conservative message is being embraced.

Pope Francis is the pope that the church needs right now. He is a child of the global south and his history and comments on issues such as poverty and inequality and the dehumanizing impact of global capitalism will help connect the church to its growing base in the non-white world. Pope Francis is helping to enhance the church's credibility in those parts of the world in which it is growing, winning it more converts, and restoring confidence in a scandal-plagued church of those who have strayed or stayed away.

We are living in the “Age of Francis of Buenos Aires.”

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bah! Humbug! I Divested Myself From The Culture Of Consumption That Surrounds Christmas

To be honest, Christmas has always inspired more stress than excitement for me. This is the most relaxed I have ever felt this time of the year because I've totally divested myself from the culture of consumption that takes hold when Christmas comes around, which gets masqueraded by Corporate America as "a time for giving" (which makes sense from their standpoint, given that for some retailers, holiday shopping accounts for as much as 20-40 percent of annual sales).

Thinking about the rampant consumerism that takes control of so many people I know around Christmas time made me think about the following passage from Guy Debord’s critique of consumer society in his book, Society of the Spectacle, thesis 42.

"The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world. Modern economic production extends its dictatorship extensively and intensively... In the advanced regions, social space is invaded by a continuous superimposition of geological layers of commodities. At this point in the “second industrial revolution,” alienated consumption becomes for the masses a duty supplementary to alienated production."

In a consumer culture, “shop until you drop” and “spend like there is no tomorrow” is what we are constantly told to do and are expected to do. We are what we consume, what we get from others, what we have.

What troubled me most when I celebrated Christmas, and, although most people claim it should not matter, is the intense pressure to meet the high expectations friends and love ones have for the type of gift they receive from us and how we put intense pressure on them to meet our high expectations for the type of gift we receive from them.

“It’s the thought that counts,” we tell ourselves. Yeah right! It’s all about the commodity baby. “What did you get” or better yet, “what did you get me” are the questions I remember being asked the most.

But, I realize, my lack of the Christmas "spending" spirit makes me an outlier.

The final data on Christmas spending this season are not out yet. However, surveys measuring the intentions of consumers to spend this holiday season suggest that even in the context of a sluggish economy exhibiting only modest signs of recovery (the benefits of the economic recovery has skipped over most Americans), and a pervasive sense of uncertainty about their own financial future, people probably did their usual: shop, spend, shop, and spend.

The good news first: Christmas spending was projected to be lower than retailers hope for.

Nonetheless, according to a survey released in mid-November by the American Research Group, Inc., Americans planned to spend an average of $801 for gifts this holiday season. The average spending for those who said they planned to make catalog purchases is $1,166, while the average spending for those who said they would make their purchases over the Internet is $1,109. Based on survey results released in early November by the National Retail Federation, projected sails for 2013 are expected to be around $602.1 billion.

An eye-popping finding from a second NRF survey is that an astonishing 63 percent of shoppers said that did not set aside any savings for holiday gifts they planned to purchase. Break out the credit cards.

Whether you planned for it or not does not matter, because the pressure to spend is intense during the holiday season. While grabbing a few items from the grocery store, I stood in line behind a woman buying a gift card who was complaining that she had to make the purchase because a friend had brought her a gift and that she felt obligated to buy something for them.

With about 40 percent of consumers beginning their holiday shopping now before Halloween, Debord description of a consumer culture seems correct, “the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life.”

Shop until you drop!

Spend like there is no tomorrow!

I don’t miss one damn bit of it at all.

Bah! Humbug!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Learning To Win: Fighting Institutional Racism in the Schools

Yesterday, I saw a wonderful play by the Hartbeat Ensemble at the Carrier House Theater in Hartford. The play, Learning to Fail, was written and performed by participants of HartBeat’s Youth Play Institute (YPI).

I was invited to the play by a friend, Arlene; her daughter Asia was a member of the cast

The Hartbeat Ensemble Youth Play Institute (YPI) is an 8-week professional paid internship in acting, playwriting, theater design or stage management for young adults. All 9 of the actors in the play were between the ages of 16 and 21.

Set in a fictional public high school in Hartford, Learning to Fail, is a play about institutional racism in education. The thoughtful, well-writen, and well-acted play was a mixture of humor, biting social commentary, hip-hop music and dance, and spoken word.

Specifically, the play looks at the school to prison pipeline, the disturbing national trend in which black and Latino youth are disproportionately funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

To research and write the play, the youth interns conducted original research and met with a wide array of individuals to talk about the role institutional racism plays in our nation’s educational system.

I found this play on institutional racism so powerful and timely because in this so-called Age of Obama, many people believe with the election of the nation’s first black President, that racism is no longer a problem. Some people even go as far as to suggest that America is a post-racial society.

Study after study shows that many Americans, including most whites, insist that racism is no longer a determining factor in the life chances and life opportunities of people of color. To the extent that racial inequality continues to exist, blacks and other non-whites are largely responsible for their condition: rather than live in the past and complain about racism, to get ahead, they should work hard and play by the rules.

Last night’s play effectively demonstrated that we are not close to being a post-racial society; rather, racism is real and consequential in shaping the life chances and life opportunities of youth of color and that a much more clear-headed understanding how policies, practices, attitudes, structures, and beliefs operating through a key American institution come together to produce racial inequality is needed to move forward.

The young people who researched and wrote this play did a brilliant job of presenting what is a very difficult topic for many adults to wrap their minds around, the subtle and nuanced ways racism and racial discrimination continues to work in a post-Civil Rights era America.

Political Scientists, Robert C. Smith in his book, Racism in the Post Civil Rights Era: Now YouSee It, Now You Don't, defines institutional racism as occurring when “the normal, accepted, routine patterns and practices of a society's institutions have the effect or consequence of subordinating or discriminating against an individual or group or maintaining in place the results of past practices of now illegal overt racism.”

As demonstrated by the play, Learning to Fail, institutional racism operates on auto-pilot in our nation’s public schools. In a little under 2 hours, the Hartbeat Ensemble youth actors brilliantly depict the school to prison pipeline, that is, the fairly routine behaviors of teachers, principals, administrators, school board members, and local law enforcement officials that remove young people from the classroom for even the smallest of infractions and funnel them toward the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Rather than employ traditional disciplinary measures, such as counseling or detention, students are routinely suspended or expelled for a range of reasons from talking back or cursing their teachers or not wearing school uniforms to relatively harmless infractions of the rules such as not having their shoes tied or rolling their eyes.

Without a doubt, teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn in a chaotic educational setting. However, kicking kids out of school rather than providing them with the counseling, mentoring, or perhaps family intervention they need does more harm than good. Research shows that students that are suspended or expelled from school tend to either be held back a grade, drop out, or find their way into the juvenile or criminal justice system.

Part of the reason schools turn so frequently toward such harsh disciplinary tactics, as the play aptly demonstrates, is because of the seemingly insurmountable challenges and pressures many teachers face in racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically isolated urban public school systems: inadequate resources, growing pressure to have students perform well on high stakes tests, unmanageably large class sizes, students with serious behavioral problems, a lack of proper training in classroom management, a lack of good mentoring, and administrators, staff, and school board members who function more like adversaries than colleagues.

The play also sheds light on the alarming racial disparities in terms of how punishment is meted out in the schools, especially how, as one scene depicts, students of color are singled out for unnecessarily harsher punishment. Again, research shows that students of color, especially black students, are disproportionately singled out for harsh disciplinary action, including being more likely to be arrested. Compared to white students, black students are nearly three times as likely to be suspended from school, while Latino students are one-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended.

In some ways, I’ve only tackled about half of the subjects raised in this truly insightful play. While perhaps a legitimate criticism of the play is that they raise more issues than they can adequately address in roughly 2 hours, I won’t complain about anything because I was just so damn impressed by the quality of their vision and the hard work that went into creating this work of art by a group of dedicated young people.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

To be Young, Black, and Male in America: Guilty of Something until Proven Innocent

Only two people know what happened the evening of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. One person is dead, a 17 year-old black male teenager, named Trayvon Martin. The other person, at the time, a 28 year-old neighborhood watch captain for a gated community name George Zimmerman, is on trial, charged with the murder of Trayvon Martin.

The question at the heart of the trial seems to be whether Martin was (or was not) the aggressor, provoking a struggle that resulted in Zimmerman firing a single shot into his chest at close range. Bleeding from the nose and with cuts and bruises on the back of his head, when police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman told them that he was violently attacked by Martin and fired his gun in self-defense.

According to Florida’s stand-your-ground law, if Martin was the aggressor, Zimmerman’s acted in self-defense.

When I first heard about the circumstances surrounding the death of Martin, I told my mother that I did not think that Zimmerman would be convicted of murder.

The prosecution has nearly rested its case against Zimmerman. Many observers do not think the trial is going well for the prosecution. I think that they are correct. My opinion about what the final verdict will be in this trial has not changed; I hate being a pessimist, but, I still do not think that Zimmerman will be convicted.

Trayvon Martin died that night for three combined reasons: he was young, black, and male. It is for these three reasons that I do not think that there will be a conviction in this trial.

Zimmerman hunted after and killed Martin that night, I believe, because he was acting on a deeply rooted racial stereotype. In America, young black males are expected to be dangerous criminals, and unpredictably violent.

In Zimmerman’s eyes, Martin fit the stereotype of a dangerous criminal that night. "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about" and "looking at all the houses," Zimmerman told a police radio dispatcher.

"He was just walking casually, not like he was trying to get out of the rain," said Zimmerman while being questioned by the police. "Something was off" about Martin, he added.

I find it hard to believe that Zimmerman would have found the behavior of a young white male walking in the rain wearing a hoody as suspicious as he thought Martin’s behavior was that night.

According to Zimmerman description of what happened, Martin also fits the stereotype of the unpredictably violent black male. After losing track of Martin in the darkness, Zimmerman told the police that just before he reached his car, Martin (unarmed and still talking on his cell phone according to a witness for the defense who heard some of the struggle before the call abruptly ended) suddenly appeared "out of nowhere," "from the darkness," as if he "jump[ed] out of the bushes."

According to Zimmerman, Martin screamed, "You got a fucking problem, homie?" After he replied no, Martin then said that he did now, and punched him. Martin then allegedly wrestled the much bigger Zimmerman to the ground. With Martin on top of him, Zimmerman yelled for help "probably 50 times (Zimmerman says that Martin covered his mouth, muffling some of his screams)." Martin told him to "Shut the fuck up," as he repeatedly pounded him in the face and banged his head against the sidewalk.

The Sanford Police Department released Zimmerman after detaining and interviewing him for about five hours because they did not believe any of the evidence contradicted his claim of self-defense. The truth of the matter is that Zimmerman racially profiled a black teenager walking in the rain wearing a hoodie. Given the pervasiveness of stereotypes about young black males in American society, I think its going to be tough for the prosecution to convince all six jurors (five of the six are white) that Zimmerman actions that night were unreasonable given Martin's race and gender.

The decision not to charge Zimmerman that night was likely influenced by the fact that the victim was young, black, and male, the same reasons why I do not believe that Zimmerman will be found guilty of the murder that he committed that night but should be punished for.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Black People Are Like Canaries In A Coal Mine

On Monday, April 8, President Barack Obama will be visiting the University of Hartford. The buzz around campus since the email went out announcing that POTUS will be coming to our little campus has been electric. As I start typing this blog post, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have been standing in line for hours in front of the student center to get one of the highly coveted tickets to hear him speak.

Although I like President Obama, I'm not a fan of how he marginalizes the impact of white supremacy in contemporary American society or his preference for colorblind solutions to socioeconomic inequalities that are deeply rooted in longstanding racial and economic hierarchies. His pending visit to campus made me think about a book I read about 10 years ago by Critical Race Theory scholars, Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy.

In their very excellent book, Guinier and Torres, cogently and forcefully argued that race is like the canary in the coal mine.

If you are not familiar with the phrase, "canary in a coal mine" is often used to refer to a person or a thing whose ruin or suffering is an early warning sign that danger is around the corner.

Historically, coal mining is one of the most dangerous occupations anywhere in the world. For minors working underground, the potential for death from suffocation, gas poisoning, roof collapse and gas explosions, is very real.

In order to prevent a disaster, coal miners need an early warning system to let them know if conditions are unsafe. Before the widespread use of gas detection technology, caged canaries were used by coal miners because of their very sensitive respiratory systems. Their distress or death usually signaled that dangerous levels of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, methane, or carbon dioxide were building up in the mine.

A dangerous buildup of these toxins would kill the canaries long before the miners would be affected. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners were led to believe that everything was fine.

Guinier and Torres persuasively argue in their book, "Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner's canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. It is easy enough to think that when we sacrifice this canary, the only harm is to communities of color. Yet others ignore problems that converge around racial minorities at their own peril, for these problems are symptoms warning us that we are all at risk."

Black people are America's canary in the coal mine, with the exception of Native Americans, it's most marginalized racial group. Due to centuries of racial bias and structural inequalities, our collective respiratory system leaves us particularly vulnerable. Unfortunately, the nation does not fully recognize black people's vulnerability nor prioritize the interests and needs of black America, not even the nation's first black President.

Indeed, this President is making some decisions that will do more harm than good when it comes to the interests and needs of black people.

According to media reports, the President's budget proposal that he plans to unveil next week will include cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Politico reports: "The most controversial element of Obama's proposal is the inclusion of "chained CPI," the adjustment that would over time reduce cost-of-living increases to Social Security and other federal benefit programs – effectively, a cut to Social Security benefits by tying them to inflation."

Obama is the first Democratic President to propose cutting his party's signature New Deal Program, Social Security. This will be especially disastrous for blacks who are recipients of Social Security.

According to a factsheet produced by the Social Security Administration (SSA), in 2011, the average annual Social Security income received by black men 65 years and older was $13,458 and for women it was $12,173.

Although blacks have a lower life expectancy than other races at age 65, SSA suggests that blacks tend to benefit more from Social Security than other racial or ethnic groups. One reason for this is because low-wage earners tend to receive a greater return on their investment in the program than do higher-wage earners. The yearly median earnings of black workers (about $35,000) are significantly lower than the yearly median earnings of all other workers (about $42,000).

SSA's factsheet also makes the point that blacks depend on social security benefits more than any other racial or ethnic group. In 2011, among blacks, 23 percent of elderly married couples and 56 percent of unmarried elderly persons depended on a check from the Social Security Administration for 90 percent or more of their income. Moreover, in 2011, although blacks only made up 12.6 percent of the nation's population, they were 19 percent of disabled workers receiving benefits.

The President's decision to switch to the chain CPI is not a minor issue for black people who depend on their Social Security checks for survival. My mother is one of those people. According to Obama's own SSA, "African Americans receiving benefits are helped by Social Security's cost-of-living protection which guarantees a benefit that is annually adjusted for inflation." His proposal will make black recipients less secure.

Black people, in particular, should be outraged by what the President is proposing to do to Social Security (and Medicare) in an effort to win bipartisan support in Congress. Black people should also be unwilling to submerge their interests and needs and political voice because the first black President is wedded to the idea that America is a post-racial society and that people need to ignore their differences and simply find common ground and everything will be okay.

It might also be easy to believe that although cuts to Social Security may harm blacks more than other racial and ethnic groups, the long-term benefits that may come from reducing the deficit and debt far outweigh any costs to black retirees and blacks that depend on disability insurance.

This is myopic thinking. Just like the canaries that alert miners to a dangerous situation, the problems black American face are not simply their problems, they are America's problems.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Time To Dismantle, Not Tinker, With Political And Economic Hierarchies

David H. Ikard and Martell Lee Teasley write in their book, Nation of Cowards, that "structural inequalities are systemic material, social, political, and economic factors that individually or in combination facilitate individual and group disadvantages."

Structural inequalities are firmly entrenched in American society. According to Ikard and Teasley, they "manifest themselves in inferior housing, health services, education, and employment opportunities."

The continuing problem of joblessness is an appropriate place to start in trying to understand how structural inequalities work in America. Nationally, the unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, down from its Great Recession peak of 10 percent in October 2009. This figure only tells part of the story; roughly 20 million Americans are either out of work or underemployed. To make matters worse, the Federal Reserve reported last year that US corporations are sitting on about $1.7 trillion which they keep in treasuries, other bonds, and bank accounts that could be used to hire and train unemployed and underemployed Americans But, that only covers money they are sitting on domestically. If you look at worldwide holdings, a more realistic figure is that they may be hording an unprecedented $5 trillion in cash since the Great Recession.

The tenacity of structural inequalities also manifest themselves in the way wealth and income are disproportionately concentrated in the hands of a small segment of the nation's population.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a story about how the S&P 500 – the stock market index of 500 large US companies – rose to a new high of 1,569.19, recouping all of its loses from the global financial crisis which, as we all remember, was sparked largely by the rapacious greed of the folks who run Wall Street and their enablers in Washington.

The other major indicator of economic activity, the Dow Jones Industrial average, had already reach a record high last year, recovering all of its loses from 2007.

Most Americans, however, do not directly benefit from this "buoyant economy." Indeed, according to a recent PEW survey, the stock market rally has had a "limited effect on the public's economic outlook because they are not what affect people's personal financial situation." Of those surveyed, 73 percent said the rising price of stocks had "very little" or "no effect at all."

Instead, 64 percent said their household finances were impacted by gas prices, and 58 percent said they were impacted by the prices of food and other consumer goods.

In the real world, while Wall Street is breaking records, ordinary folks are becoming increasingly dependent on food stamps to feed their families. According to an article published last week in The Wall Street Journal, as of December 2012, a record number of Americans – 47.8 million people – were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Structural inequalities in the US are about as bad as they have ever been in the history of the nation. Combating inequalities as stark as they have become in the US will require dismantling, not tinkering with, political and economic hierarchies. Unfortunately, many of the well-intentioned solutions being touted today by some on the left – such as, higher taxes on the rich, or a financial transaction tax – may do little more than prop up the status quo.

We need a much more radical solution. The problem is capitalism. It must go.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The World Has A Growing Inequality Problem And The U.S. Is No Different

The "Great Recession" officially ended three years ago in the second half of 2009. The unemployment rate is down from its double-digit peak in October 2009. The Wall Street investor class is dancing for joy because the Dow Jones Industrial Average has doubled in value since its recent low in March 2009. With home prices, sales, and construction up, the housing market seems to be recovering quite well.

The American economy appears to be on the rebound, but, not everyone is benefitting because America has a growing inequality problem that has many Americans staring either into the economic abyss or watching over their shoulder for a pink slip as they live paycheck-to-paycheck.

Inequality is a global problem. Let me start with the world first and then work my way back to America.

In a new report, The Cost of Inequality: How Wealth and Income Extremes Hurt us All, a leading international philanthropy organization, Oxfam, argues that inequality caused by extreme concentrations of wealth and income is economically damaging and inefficient, harmful to human progress, undermines efforts to end poverty, environmentally destructive, and may fuel civil unrest and political instability.

How bad is it? Oxfam research shows that growing wealth and income inequality is a global problem. There are roughly 1200 billionaires in the world. In 2012, the top 100 billionaires increased their wealth by $240 billion, enough to end world poverty four times over. Almost half the world's population could live just off the net worth of the world's 250 richest people.

In the U.S., since 1980, the richest 1 percent has doubled their share of national income, rising from 10 percent to 20 percent. For the uber-rich (0.01 percent), their share of income quadrupled to levels never seen before. The richest five Americans made almost $7 billion each last year (if you are counting in your head, that's $3,500,000.00 per hour) just from their investments. If the top 400 wealthiest Americans pooled their investment profits from last year, they could pay the in-state tuition and fees for every college student in the U.S.

According to data released late last year by the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million people (15 percent) lived in poverty – an annual income of $22,811 for a family of four with two children – which was about the same percent from the year before.

While the number of people living in poverty stayed about the same, the number of families struggling with poverty despite parents working for a living increased during the same period. A growing number of Americans returned to work after the Great Recession, but mostly to low-wage, service-sector jobs, not the middle-class jobs they held before the boys and girls on Wall Street and the U.S. financial sector nearly ruined the nation's economy with their reckless profiteering.

According to a new report by The Working Poor Project, a privately funded nation-wide initiative aiming to develop policies that assist low-income families achieve economic security, the ranks of the working poor is growing. The number of working families struggling to survive on low-wages – defined as below 200 percent of the official poverty threshold – increased from 10.2 million in 2010 to 10.4 million in 2011. Their data show that in 2011, the total number of individuals living in low-income working families was 47.5 million. The number of children living in low-income working families stood at 23.5 million.

These low-wage jobs – about one in four adults in low-income working families held jobs in just eight occupations, as cashiers, cooks, health aids, janitors, maids, retail salespersons, waiters and waitresses, or drivers – "typically offer limited opportunities for advancement, few (if any) benefits, and create challenges for parents trying to balance work and family responsibilities."

In 2011, the 20 percent of working families that sit at the top the social structure hauled in an impressive 10.1 times the total income of the bottom 20 percent of working families, up from a formerly impressive 9.5 percent in 2007. Now, sit down if you are reading this while standing. To put another way, the richest one-fifth of working families took home 48 percent of all income, while the bottom one-fifth of working families took home less than 5 percent of all income.

If it wasn't for the nation's social safety net, poverty and inequality would be even worse. Specifically, in 2011, if it wasn't for Social Security an additional 21.4 million people (including 14.5 million seniors) would have slid into poverty. In 2011, if it wasn't for unemployment insurance, 2.3 million people would have slid into poverty. In 2011, the earned income tax credit and child tax credit kept 5.7 million working people out of poverty. In 2011, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program kept 3.9 million people out of poverty.

A rising tide does not lift all boats. America cannot end poverty unless we strengthen (not weaken) our social safety, create greater economic opportunities for struggling working families and, most importantly, do something about inequality to close the gap between the rich and the poor. A permanent class of uber-rich Americans is dangerous for democracy.