Paris, France — The banker looked at me with a puzzled expression when I told her a recent poll shows 47% of the French fear they could one day be homeless.
“I’m surprised only 47% realize it,” she said.I thought of that as I watched the good Parisians walk large arches around the old man leaning against the wall coughing up either his lungs, or his guts, or both. His legs were stiff, hands crooked and he wore only a light jacket despite the wet cold. He is certainly one of those retired Frenchman living on 460 euros a month.
Needless-to-say, old and alone with no money to his name, he is lucky if he finds a safe shelter. The scene is the same throughout the rich world. Two million American homes are being taken from their indebted owners because the government allowed loan-sharks to go in for the quick kill. Thirty seven million Americans live below what the government considers the poverty line; 47 million have no health coverage unlike our old Frenchman who, until President Sarkozy privatizes health care too, is still covered.
But it has not been a bad run for all. The top one percent of Americans has raked in 40% of the country’s economic growth over the past twenty years. The same people who get the tax cuts. As a matter of fact, in 2002 only five percent of the US population owned more than 50% of its buying power (Attac) and under George W., things have just been getting better and better for the top.
In France the situation is a little better with 12% of households living below the poverty line (60% of the median standard of living) or seven million people. The French say three and-a-half million because they use the standard of half the median or 700 euros a month. The median in France is 1350 euros a month for a single person, 2225 for a couple and 2840 for a couple with two children.
So, if being rich is considered twice the median then I find myself in the top six percent yet when I look at my financial situation and my savings, I am at most only ten months from the street. Ten months! And I have no debts. Fifty-one percent of French households are in debt and a full 730 000 are surendettés which means they can no longer meet their payments. One is Georges K., 69, who in 1990 was earning the equivalent of 106 000 euros a year. Things went from bad to worse and today he and his wife, after selling their home and almost everything else now have “200 euros to live on.” Georges has not been on holiday in ten years, “my wife cannot afford the hairdresser and I haven’t been able to give my grandchildren a gift.” So how is it, more French do not feel insecure?
I’m sure our old man spent most of his life working hard and drinking lots to numb the pain of being stuck in a rut. We all know inequalities are growing and the very rich are getting scandalously richer but that is not the question. The question is, if I have an accident, or am laid off, or suffer some other misfortune and thus could find myself in the street then what makes me so much better than or different from the old man?
Do I really believe I am closer to Michael Eisner who as Disney G.D. in 1998 made in one year 25070 times the average salary of his employees ($576,6 million) or to Bill Gates who that year had more wealth than 45% of the American people combined? I wonder how many days in the street it takes to lose your dignity? How long does it take to lose your mind once your dignity is gone? It just takes a few days of being unwashed and I cover my nose and move away.
A third of my monthly salary is taken at the source for the French welfare system; more than a month’s salary goes to income tax every year and much more into the 19% sales tax. President Sarkozy this year gave the 450 000 richest French households a 15 billion euro tax reduction. Those at the top have succeeded in angering me at those at the bottom who cheat on the system at “my expense” rather than at those who rake it in and refuse to share with the country that made them so wealthy.
The amazing thing is it is these arguments which brought Adolph Hitler to power. He was the man who brought dignity back to the little guy, promoted hard work and targeted social injustice albeit for the ‘Arian race‘ of course. I know this is too much of a short-cut but it is worth thinking about.
Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves the questions of the Humanist Revolution posed with people like M. de Montagne, D. Erasmus and M. Luther among others on Free Will and social responsibility.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God!”
OK, but why wait? The wealth is already here.