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Jakada Imani Headshot

Profits Take All: Why We Need to Move Toward a Shared Prosperity

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In September, the United States Census Bureau reported 2009 that 14.3% Americans were toiling below the poverty line. The number is the highest recorded since 1994.

With the country in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, four million additional Americans found themselves in poverty in 2009, with the total reaching 44 million, or one in seven. Millions more were surviving on the edge, only due to expanded unemployment insurance and other assistance.

While the overall poverty rate climbed to just over 14 percent, for folks of color it's over 25%. And the statistics are even more upsetting when we look at our nation's children. Nearly 36 percent of black kids and 33 percent of Latino kids were poor in 2009, as were 38.5 percent of all families headed by single moms. That's a third of our children of color that are living in poverty.

These numbers are tragic, indeed, but there is a much deeper and uglier truth about poverty in our country. Because the standards were set nationally, this report was based on an extremely narrow definition of poverty. My assessment is that the problem is much greater in California and particularly in my native Bay Area. Though a recent study announced that California boasts no less than 716,316 resident millionaires, our state also has no less than 5.6 million children and adults who live below the poverty line.

However, that line is established across the national board. For a single adult in 2009, the poverty line was $10,830, for a family of four it goes up to $22,050. Can you imagine supporting a family of four people in the Bay Area on $22,000 a year? Our region's rental prices are 35% over the national average; yet we assess who is living in poverty by the same national standards.

In order for our state to truly address poverty in our communities, a first step would be to adjust the poverty line to accurately reflect the true nature of this problem. But beyond this, we must look at the full picture of wealth, race and economic distribution in our country.

At the same time that the number of our citizens who live in poverty grows, the United States remains the country with the largest economic inequality on the planet. That means that all the wealth of our country is overwhelmingly concentrated in a relatively few hands. In 2007, the top 1% of households owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and richest 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85% *.

There is also no dearth of data showing how all of this disproportionately impacts brown and black folks. The unemployment rate was at 9.6 percent in August 2010. The African-American unemployment rate that month stood at 16.3 percent, the Latino unemployment rate at 12.0 percent, and the unemployment rate for whites at 8.7 percent. Youth unemployment stood at a high 26.3 percent.

Miss Ella Jo Baker once asked, "What is the excuse for so much poverty in a country as rich as America?" I wish her question had become obsolete. Yet, in 2009, at the same time that the poverty rates boomed, the number of millionaires in the United States rose 16 percent and the combined net worth of the 400 richest Americans climbed 8%.

We live in such a wealthy country -- there is simply no excuse for the poverty that our communities face. And the burden of poverty rests much more heavily on the shoulders of brown and black folks.

The root of the problem is that the profits of a few have come before what should really matter- people and our planet. Profit makes insurance companies, originally started to protect sick people, cut off coverage for babies who are sick. Profit inspires oil companies to try and buy elections so that they can pollute without repercussion.

Our country has to get back to honoring work and its workers, over reckless speculation. When we look at all of the statistics about poverty, wealth and big corporate profits, it's easy to see that the everyday people at the heart of our communities have faired the worst. The gap between the rich and the poor grows. And the bankers and hedge fund managers, who bear more responsibility for the failure of the economy, are experiencing much less of the pain of the recession. That burden falls on workers and small business owners who now face the work of rebuilding our economy. Not only is this deeply unfair, it's bad economic policy.

We need a new approach. One where people and the planet come before profit. Only with a new framework can we build an economy and society with hope, dignity, and prosperity for everyone.