Inequality and Climate Change: The Common Thread

Posted by Bob Lord

Inequality and climate change, two of our three most critical challenges (American imperialism being the third), have one thing in common:

Each report is more stunning (and more depressing) than the previous one. 

The following is an excerpt from Welcome to the Guilded City of New York, an article that appeared in a recent issue of The Nation:

Here is New York in 2013: a city of dazzling resurrection and official neglect, remarkable wealth and even more remarkable inequality. Despite the popular narrative of a city reborn—after the fiscal crisis of the ’70s, the crack epidemic of the ’80s, the terrorist attack of 2001, the superstorm of 2012—the extraordinary triumph of New York’s existence is tempered by the outrage of that inequality. Here, one of the country’s poorest congressional districts, primarily in the South Bronx, sits less than a mile from one of its wealthiest, which includes Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And here, a billionaire mayor presides over a homelessness crisis so massive that 50,000 men, women and children sleep in shelters each night. More New Yorkers are homeless these days than at any time since the Great Depression.

The numbers tell the story. Between 2000 and 2010, the median income of the city’s eight wealthiest neighborhoods jumped 55 percent, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. Meanwhile, as the cushy precincts got even cushier, median income dipped 3 percent in middle-income areas and 0.2 percent in the poorest neighborhoods.

New York, of course, has always been a city of striking contrasts, but its wealth gap is growing ever more extreme. The richest 1 percent of New Yorkers claimed almost 39 percent of the city’s income share in 2012—up from 12 percent in 1980. The money pouring in at the top of the income brackets has simply pooled there, without trickling down to the bottom or even the middle. This great pooling has occurred as median wages have fallen, the cost of living has increased, and the poverty rate has risen to 21 percent—as high as it was in 1980. As a result, America’s most iconic city now has the same inequality index as Swaziland.

Consider the highlighted passage for a second. Almost 40% of the income in New York flows to the top 1%. The average top one percenter has an income about 66 times that of the average 99 percenter. Before long, half the income in New York will flow to the top 1%. And the rest of the country won't be that far behind. 

So what will come first, an uprising of the masses or a planet on fire?

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