Germans take note of wealth gap in America

The days when Europeans believed that in America the streets are paved with gold are long over. The usually conservative German magazine, Der Spiegel, has joined a legion of voices in Europe concerned about the growing gap between the rich and poor in the United States.

Thomas Schultz, writing for the magazine this week, says: “While America’s super rich congratulate themselves on donating billions to charity, the rest of the country is worse off than ever. Long term unemployment is rising and millions of Americans are struggling to survive. The gap between rich and poor is wider than ever and the middle class is disappearing.”

The German reporter drove north about an hour from Los Angeles to Ventura where luxury homes dot the hillsides. It didn’t take long for him to notice that on numerous streets in the town people were sleeping in their cars.

“This is normally illegal, both in Ventura and the rest of the country,” he wrote, “where local officials and residents are worried about seeing run-down vans full of Mexican migrant workers parked on residential streets.”

“But sometime at the beginning of last year,” wrote Schulz, “people in Ventura realized that the cars parked in front of their driveways at night weren’t old wrecks, but well-tended station wagons and hatchbacks. And the people sleeping in them weren’t fruit pickers, but their former neighbors.”

The German reporters were amazed to find that people in Ventura were driving up to Salvation Army headquarters to take advantage of free meals and that some were driving up in their BMW’s, reluctant to give up the expensive cars that reminded them of better times.

The German journalist was quick to pick up on exactly who are recovering from the economic crisis and who are not doing so well at all.

“Companies nationwide are reporting strong growth, and the stock market has almost returned to its pre-crisis levels. Even the number of billionaires grew by a healthy 17 percent in 2009,” writes Schulz

“For people in the lower income brackets, the recovery already seems to be falling apart,” he then goes on to say. “Experts fear that the U.S. economy could remain weak for many years to come. And despite the many government assistance programs, the small amount of hope they engender has yet to be felt by the general public. For many people things are headed dramatically downward.”

The Der Spiegel article cites what it found as troublesome signs for the future.

Saying the middle class is systematically being wiped out of existence, it also mentioned an article by columnist Arianna Huffington who “issued the almost apocalyptic warning that America is in danger of becoming a third world country.”

On unemployment, the German journalists pick up immediately on government figures that don’t tell the whole story:

“The overall unemployment rate remains consistently above 9.5 percent, more than a year after the official end of the recession. But this is just the official figure. When adjusted to include the people who have already given up looking for work or are barely surviving on the few hundred dollars they earn with a part-time job and are using up their savings, the real unemployment figure jumps to more than 17 percent.”

Food insecurity was another area that did not escape the sights of the German journalist. His article notes that at some point during the last year 50 million Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, couldn’t afford to buy enough food to stay healthy.

The Der Spiegel article closes with the assessment: “Americans face a bitter reality of fewer and fewer jobs after decades of stagnating wages and dramatic increases in inequality. Only in recent months, as the economy has grown but jobs have not returned, as profits have returned but poverty figures are on the rise, the country seems to have recognized that it is struggling with a deep seated, structural crisis that has been building for years.”

Not a bad analysis at all for an article in a magazine that, for years, helped spread the idea that in America the streets are paved with gold!

Photo: Luxury home in Bel Air, Calif. (CC)


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.