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Observations: Haves and have-nots

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image Lisa Csiki and Scott Curtis didn’t move to South Hillsborough in the hopes of finding jobs, they created their own by starting The Dog House and More in Ruskin. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Income inequality is a huge and growing problem in the United States.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Last week, CNN’s John Sutter wrote a vivid article about the economic divide in the United States using a town in Louisiana, considered the most income unequal place in America, as the setting. The north side of town is wealthy, with private tennis courts, pools and manicured lawns while the south side of town is dirt poor with leaking mobile homes and eviction notices. The two, apparently, rarely intersect.

Income inequality is a huge and growing problem in the United States.  As Sutter pointed out, according to the CIA Factbook, that inequality is greater here than it is in countries such as Iran and Nigeria. That the middle class is shrinking no longer makes headlines — it is just accepted as fact. We are becoming a two-class nation of haves and have-nots.

It is easy enough to blame the poor for their circumstances. Mistakes are made, young unwed mothers have children and then more children, education is not a priority and so on. All of those things add up and weigh down anyone hoping to climb a ladder of success. Becoming an unwed teenage mother is a virtual guarantee of a lifetime of poverty. The deeper reality, of course, is more complicated than that. Those who come from wealthy backgrounds tend to have a better course to follow from the very beginning. Dreams are still viable for emerging young people who have never had to worry about having enough to eat. For a 13-year-old girl in poverty, having children and dropping out of school may be the only life she knows.

That said, of course personal responsibility plays a role in whether or not someone becomes a success but so, too, does having parents with money.  The latter part should not be so easily or casually dismissed. Poverty breeds poverty and in America, once the land of opportunity, a full-time job is no longer a guarantee of having a home and enough to eat.

Florida is certainly no model for income equality. It is in the top six worst states in the nation, a place where haves and have-nots share neighborhoods, often separated by gates. In my opinion, the government plays a role in that, often siding with moneyed interests over the interests of the poor, the helpless, homeless and those in need.  But the government does also open doors to those who can still conjure up their own dreams.

A few weeks ago, I got a new business license to cover income activities outside of my job with the newspaper. I can’t imagine that many states could possibly make it easier to go into business for yourself than does Florida. I walked in to the Tax Collector’s office and told the clerk I wanted a business license. If the business doesn’t involve food, alcohol or toxic substances, the cost is minimal. In my case, I listed two distinct activities so the fee was a little higher but for as little as an idea and $22, anyone, regardless of education or economic background, can become a legal business owner in Florida. In my case, fifteen minutes after walking in the door, I was in business.

That is pretty cool.

An article last week by Daniel Gross in The Daily Beast discussed how despite all of the hits America has taken over the past years, there is no nation on earth with the culture and success rate of starting up new companies than the United States. According to Gross, Europe, with roughly the same size economy as the U.S, lacks “the mix of hubris, recklessness, competence, greed, and vision that enables start-ups to boom.” It certainly lacks the culture of risk and the willingness to invest in risk that is found here.

As Americans, we are, in our hearts and by our nature, entrepreneurs. And there are few places in America where it is easier to become one than in Florida.  That said, not everyone can be an entrepreneur. Not everyone can take the extreme hours and the extreme risk of starting up a business. There is no shame in digging ditches or being a janitor — far from it. Earning a living from calloused hands is far more in line with who we choose to believe we are than does a desk job. My grandfather, certainly one of the smartest men I’ve ever known, retired as a school janitor. He could have been anything but he chose that; he chose to earn a living and raise a family in a small town in South Dakota. And in that town he was much loved — even by those who owned the bank and bigger businesses. He was never considered a “have-not”, even among those who had wealth.

So what about those for whom a business license would be a meaningless piece of paper? What about those who work hard and struggle to feed their families but find themselves falling further and further behind, sometimes running out of the means to put food on the table?

As the people of a compassionate nation, we need to help them. We are all about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps but, as has been said repeatedly, first you have to have the bootstraps.

My grandfather raised his family as a school janitor. Growing up in the 1970s, my next door neighbor raised his family working as a milk man (for the younger readers, he delivered milk and ice cream to homes, placing a family’s order in an insulated box on the doorstep). I knew someone raising a family by working at a gas station.

That is likely not possible today. The growing income inequality in this nation is skewing the cost of life to a higher end, increasingly out of reach for those who lack the means. Yet the need for janitors hasn’t decreased. The need for store clerks, restaurant workers and even teachers hasn’t decreased. The costs of life have, of course, increased.

Growing income inequality is not sustainable, a point made by economists and publications such as the Wall Street Journal. The United States already has among the worst statistics for income inequality among developed nations. As individuals, we are limited in how to solve this growing problem. In South Hillsborough, however, there is a vast pool of successful retired businesspeople. They should not be forgotten nor dismissed as mere old people but rather raised up and encouraged to share their hard earned skills with others. 

Nor should those in need be so easily dismissed. For the vast majority of people, it is clear that a lifetime of handouts aren’t the answer, nor even desired. But sometimes, especially these days, the simple act of getting some bootstraps, whether via food stamps or help with rent and the electric bill can make the difference between broken down in failure or finding the road to success. Somehow we need to get over the idea that poverty is entirely self-inflicted and get back to the idea that earning a living should allow for just that — a means for living.

Forced redistribution of wealth is not the answer, either, of course. But there are things our representative government can do to at least help to level the playing field and if we the voters can change our attitude, we can help convince elected officials to change theirs. Being poor is not a sin. But doing nothing to help bridge the growing divide between the haves and have-nots quite possibly is.

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