Jorge G. Castañeda: What Latin America Can Teach Us
Jorge G. Castañeda is a professor of politics and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University, who served as foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003.
IN a Bertelsmann Foundation study on social justice released this fall, the United States came in dead last among the rich countries, with only Greece, Chile, Mexico and Turkey faring worse. Whether in poverty prevention, child poverty, income inequality or health ratings, the United States ranked below countries like Spain and South Korea, not to mention Japan, Germany or France.
It was another sign of how badly Americans are hurting their middle class. Wars, famine and violence have devastated middle classes before, in Germany and Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe. But when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, a social structure roughly similar to what existed before would always resurface.
No nation has ever lost an existing middle class, and the United States is not in danger of that yet. But the percentage of national income held by the top 1 percent of Americans went from about 10 percent in 1980 to 24 percent in 2007, and that is a worrisome signal.
So before the United States continues on its current road of dismantling its version of the welfare state, of shredding its social safety net, of expanding the gap between rich and poor, Americans might do well to glance south. The lesson is that even after a large middle class emerges, yawning inequities between rich and poor severely strain any society’s cohesion and harmony.
If ever a geographical stereotype had some truth to it, it would be that in Latin America, where a handful of immensely wealthy magnates wielded power over a sea of the poor. If there has ever been a social cliché with roots in reality, it would be that a vast middle class was always the backbone of the United States’ strength....
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