Least fortunate of the ‘two Americas’ must have hope



Holiday cards are arriving, offering Hallmark greetings of hope and peace. But this holiday season has focused attention, to a remarkable degree, on a more challenging and troubling hallmark of our society: increasing inequality between the rich and the poor.

In November, Pope Francis sharply criticized growing economic inequality, decrying the “idolatry of money.” In a November election, Bill De Blasio cruised to victory in the New York City mayoral race while criticizing the outgoing mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, for presiding over “two New Yorks” — one rich, one poor.

In a Dec. 4 speech, President Obama said the top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income; that group now takes half. And while the average CEO used to make 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO makes 273 times more. “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream,” Mr. Obama said.

Teny Gross, executive director of The Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, in Providence, has been talking for years about the “two Americas.” In one America, he said, “there are parents like me concerned about which college my kids are going to go to, and there’s another America where the concern is: I hope my kids won’t get shot and go to jail.”

In one America, a retired investment banker just gave $5 million to Moses Brown, a private school on Providence’s East Side, he said. In the other America, many urban public schools are struggling. (On Saturday, The New York Times reported that public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than before the recession, although enrollment is up 800,000.)

“There are two Americas, and we cannot continue to ignore that,” Gross said. “It has to do with who is incarcerated, who is stopped and frisked, who gets good jobs and who doesn’t.”

And that’s not someone else’s problem. “When people fail in our city and state, it hurts all of us, and it hurts us as taxpayers,” Gross said, citing The Providence Journal’s three-part series, “The Cost of a Bullet,” which detailed the public costs of violence, including medical expenses, prosecution and incarceration.

“The poor need to be successful in our society,” Gross said. “They are not the enemy. Stop delegitimizing the poor and minorities and immigrants.”

By the same token, we can’t afford to demonize the wealthy, he said. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela “didn’t want to lose the rich; he wanted a South Africa for everybody,” he said. “And in our state, the rich have generated innovation and are necessary and important.”

So, it’s not a question of “Barrington vs. Olneyville,” Gross said. “The question is: How can we all do better together, and how can we have a true meritocracy where it doesn’t matter where in Rhode Island or where in the city you were born?”

Leaders will have to debate how to best answer that question in 2014. And the institute will do what it can by trying to find jobs for the young men it’s steering away from violence. “They have to have hope,” Gross emphasized.

While Hallmark cards will never delve into “the idolatry of money” or class sizes in public schools, the underlying message is worth emphasizing: In 2014, we need more hope and peace.

On Twitter: @fitzprov

Source: http://www.providencejournal.com/writers/edward-fitzpatrick/20131224-edward-fitzpatrick-least-fortunate-of-the-two-americas-must-have-hope.ece