Richest 62 billionaires as wealthy as half the world population combined

 Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

A new Oxfam report shows that the 62 richest billionaires own as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population.

Mark Goldring, the Oxfam GB chief executive, said: “It is simply unacceptable that the poorest half of the world population owns no more than a small group of the global super-rich – so few, you could fit them all on a single coach.

“World leaders’ concern about the escalating inequality crisis has so far not translated into concrete action to ensure that those at the bottom get their fair share of economic growth. In a world where one in nine people go to bed hungry every night, we cannot afford to carry on giving the richest an ever bigger slice of the cake.”

Leading figures from Pope Francis to Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, have called for action to reverse the trend in inequality, but Oxfam said words had not been translated into action. Its prediction that the richest 1% would own the same wealth as the poorest 50% by 2016 had come true a year earlier than expected.

The World Economic Forum in Davos comes amid fears that the turmoil in financial markets since the turn of the year may herald the start of a new phase to the global crisis that began eight years ago – this time originating in the less-developed emerging countries.

Oxfam said a three-pronged approach was needed: a crackdown on tax dodging; higher investment in public services; and higher wages for the low paid. It said a priority should be to close down tax havens, increasingly used by rich individuals and companies to avoid paying tax and which had deprived governments of the resources needed to tackle poverty and inequality.

Three years ago, David Cameron told the WEF that the UK would spearhead a global effort to end aggressive tax avoidance in the UK and in poor countries, but Oxfam said promised measures to increase transparency in British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, such as the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands, had not been implemented.

Goldring said: “We need to end the era of tax havens which has allowed rich individuals and multinational companies to avoid their responsibilities to society by hiding ever increasing amounts of money offshore.

Read the complete article in The Guardian newspaper web site.

A reservation town fighting alcoholism, obesity and ghosts from the past

 A shredded American flag at a grave site in Blackwater, Arizona. Photograph: Steve Craft for the Guardian

A shredded American flag at a grave site in Blackwater, Arizona. Photograph: Steve Craft for the Guardian

According to the US census bureau’s American community survey 2008-2012 of communities of more than 1,000 people – the latest statistics available at the time of reporting – the median household income in Blackwater was just $9,491 a year. Nationally it was $53,915 in 2012. It has improved more recently to $12,723, but is still less than a quarter of the national average. It is the final stop in a series of Guardian dispatches about the lives of people trying to make a life in places that seem the most remote from the American Dream.

“I was picking cotton in the fields at five years old,” said Lidya, who would only give her first name. She was one of the women working at a centre in Blackwater that provides free lunches for elderly people. “You had this long sack and you had to fill it with cotton. This wasn’t 1868, it was 1968. The casinos changed a lot of things. We’re dependent on them now but there is still that poverty out there. The majority of people here struggle to get by.”

Blackwater sits at the southern end of the 580 square miles designated by the US Congress in 1859 as a home for two tribes – the Akimel O’odham tribe (also known as the Pima) and the Pee Posh (also known as the Maricopa).

The area around the town of little more than 1,000 people – 94% Native American – is mostly farmland and desert. The dried-up bed of the Gila river, which was once the tribes’ lifeblood, is at the town’s eastern flank with the San Tan mountains as backdrop.

Facilities in Blackwater are few beyond tribal offices. No cafes, bars or restaurants. The new houses paid for by the casino revenues, clustered together in their own neighbourhoods, stand out from the crumpled homes that have endured decades of desert winds.

The Wild Horse Pass casino, which brings in millions for the reservation every year. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

The Wild Horse Pass casino, which brings in millions for the reservation every year. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

The reservation’s northern tip reaches almost to the city limits. It is the geography of this small corner that has delivered the promise of a different future. The tribal council has taken advantage of a 1987 US supreme court ruling that recognised a degree of sovereignty for Native American reservations as “domestic dependent nations”. Gila River joined the band of Indian communities that got into the casino businesses after the justices said state governments had no authority to stop or regulate them.

The reservation spent $200m building the Wild Horse Pass casino and hotel, the largest in the state when it was completed. The luxury resort now includes a concert venue, golf course and a motorsports race track. The tribal council, as on other reservations, won’t reveal how much it makes from the Wild Horse and two other casinos on Gila River but estimates put it at around $250m a year.

The high-priced cocktails and luxury cars – and the wads of cash lost on the turn of a card – reflect a lifestyle those who live in Blackwater only glimpse if they trouble to venture to the other end of the reservation.

 Ira Hayes and other US marines raise the American flag on Mount Suribachi, on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima in 1945. Photograph: Joe Rosenthal/AP

Ira Hayes and other US marines raise the American flag on Mount Suribachi, on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima in 1945. Photograph: Joe Rosenthal/AP

Gila River reservation has had its fleeting moments of fame – and infamy. It was the site of an internment camp for thousands of Japanese Americans during the second world war, over the objections of the tribes.

Towards the war’s end, Ira Hayes’s return from Japan brought a more welcome kind of attention. He is in the far left of the photograph as the American flag is lifted over Iwo Jima during the battle with the Japanese for the island. Within days, three of the six soldiers in the picture were dead.

Years later, his life story was told in a film, The Outsider, where a white man, Tony Curtis, played the Native American hero. It also inspired a Johnny Cash hit, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, with lyrics touching on a bitter legacy that is the source of many of the reservation’s problems to this day:

The water grew Ira’s people’s crops

’Til the white man stole the water rights

And the sparklin’ water stopped.

Hayes was hailed by presidents and feted across the country. But his decline into alcoholism – he was arrested dozens of times for drunken behaviour – and drink-related death at the age of 32 was often portrayed as a consequence of life on the reservation, although the toll of war and fame may have had more to do with it.

Read the complete article on the Guardian newspaper website here.

America’s poorest border town: no immigration papers, no American Dream

Colonia Muñiz is the third stop for a series of Guardian dispatches about the lives of people trying to make a life in places that seem the most remote from the American Dream. According to one measure, the US Census Bureau’s American community survey 2008-2012 of communities of more than 1,000 people – the latest statistics available at the time of reporting – the median household income was just $11,711 a year, putting it among the four lowest income towns in the country, and has since fallen to $11,111. Nationally it was $53,915 in 2012.

In Colonia Muñiz, more than 60% of households fall below the poverty line, including all of those headed by single mothers with children at home. About a third of the workforce is unemployed, although even for those with jobs their work is often seasonal and fails to provide a steady income.

In much of the US, the American Dream is often regarded as a birthright. For many who live in Colonia Muñiz, it is a symbol of hope but also a reminder of their second-class status and their complicated relationship with the US. “As a child I didn’t feel good because I wished I was an American but I’m not,” said Maria. “What Obama has done is good and I’m proud the United States has helped us. It is a good country. But I want it for my parents too.”

That may yet happen. Under a more recent presidential executive order, undocumented parents of US citizens and legal residents can now also apply for protection from deportation and a work permit. That includes Vallejo, who has two children who were born in the US. The order does not cover the parents of those who have applied under the earlier order, such as Maria. But her brother in Florida now has permanent residence, a green card. That should open the path for Theresa and Emilio if politics doesn’t get in the way.

The programme is on hold after Texas and 25 other states launched a legal action to challenge the president’s authority to issue the order, although more than 100,000 permits were already issued before the legal intervention. Theresa is waiting. She has a wood burning oven in her backyard on which she cooks Mexican food. “I want to be able to put up a sign in front of my house: tamales for sale,” she said. “I cannot do it now. Immigration may see it and come and ask questions. But one day I will do that, thanks to Obama.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site here.

America’s poorest white town

One of those communities is Beattyville, recorded by a US census survey as the poorest white town – 98% of its 1,700 residents are white – in the country. It was also by one measure – the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2008-2012 of communities of more than 1,000 people, the latest statistics available at the time of reporting – among the four lowest income towns in the country. It is the first stop for a series of dispatches by the Guardian about the lives of those trying to do more than survive in places that seem the most remote from the aspirations and possibilities of the American Dream.

Karen Jennings patted her heavily made up face, put on a sardonic smile and said she thought she looked good after all she’d been through.

“I was an alcoholic first. I got drunk and fell in the creek and broke my back. Then I got hooked on the painkillers,” the 59-year-old grandmother said.

Over the years, Jennings’ back healed but her addiction to powerful opioids remained. After the prescriptions dried up, she was drawn to the underground drug trade that defines eastern Kentucky today as coal, oil and timber once did.

Jennings spoke with startling frankness about her part in a plague gripping the isolated, fading towns dotting this part of Appalachia. Frontier communities steeped in the myth of self-reliance are now blighted by addiction to opioids – “hillbilly heroin” to those who use them. It’s a dependency bound up with economic despair and financed in part by the same welfare system that is staving off economic collapse across much of eastern Kentucky. It’s a crisis that crosses generations.

One of the abandoned houses along Crystal Creek, Beattyville.

(One of the abandoned houses along Crystal Creek, Beattyville. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian )

Hidden world

Eastern Kentucky falls within that part of Appalachia that has come to epitomise the white underclass in America ever since president Lyndon Johnson sat down on the porch of a wood cabin in the small town of Inez in 1964 and made it the face of his War on Poverty.

The president arrived virtually unannounced at the home of Tom Fletcher, a 38-year-old former coalminer who had not held a full-time job in two years and was struggling to feed eight children. The visit offered the rest of the US a disturbing glimpse into a largely hidden world where houses routinely lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, and children habitually failed to get enough to eat. The 1960 census records that one in five adults in the region could neither read nor write.

Half a century later, while poverty levels have fallen dramatically in some other parts of the country in good part thanks to Johnson, the economic gap between the region and much of the rest of America is as wide. And its deprivation is once again largely invisible to most of the country.

Beattyville’s median household income is just $12,361 (about £8,000) a year, placing it as the third lowest income town in the US, according to that Census Bureau 2008-12 survey.

Nationally, the median household income was $53,915 in 2012. In real terms, the income of people in Beattyville is lower than it was in 1980.

The town’s poverty rate is 44% above the national average. Half of its families live below the poverty line. That includes three-quarters of those with children, with the attendant consequences. More than one-third of teenagers drop out of high school or leave without graduating. Just 5% of residents have college degrees.

Surrounding communities are little better. Beattyville is the capital of Lee County, named after the commander of the Confederate army of Northern Virginia in the civil war, General Robert E Lee.

Five of the 10 poorest counties in the US run in a line through eastern Kentucky and they include Lee County. Life expectancy in the county is among the worst in the US, which is not unconnected to the fact that more than half the population is obese. Men lived an average of just 68.3 years in 2013, a little more than eight years short of the national average. Women lived 76.4 years on average, about five years short of national life expectancy.

Read the complete article at The Guardian newspaper link here.

Sleep Country Canada mattress recycling is buggy.

Christine Magee image from Sleep Country Canada web site

Sleep Country Canada has a mattress recycling program that takes used beds and box springs and offers them to people in need, like people with disabilities on welfare in BC, but the program is a little buggy.

The charity delivering a bed doesn’t take the old bed and/or box spring away, leaving the person living in poverty with the cost of removing the bed and the recycling fee. Duh.

It’s great that used beds are being offered to people living in poverty, but didn’t anyone in the BC government, the charity, or Sleep Country think that people living in poverty might not have the extra funds to pay the recycling fees – the same fee Sleep Country Canada doesn’t have to pay as it’s shuffled that tax onto people living in poverty – nor might the recipients of the used bed have a car or truck or even the physical ability to dispose of their old bed?

How did I find out about this tax transfer to the poor? After sleeping on a mattress for 20 plus years I contacted social services – because of my disability I’m one of the thousands of people with disabilities in BC living far below the federal governments poverty line – I contacted social services and was told about the bed program offered through Sleep Country Canada and a charity called WRAGS.

When the bed was delivered I asked the driver if they take away the old mattress and box spring. He said no. I asked if he knew anyone who picks up the old mattress and box spring. He said no. I then asked if I had to get rid of the mattress and box spring myself. He said yes.

On the WRAGS web site they state: “WRAGS is concerned about the environment and works with Sleep Country to ensure mattresses are disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner.” Hmmm.

WRAGS gets their beds from Sleep Country Canada and then recycles them to people living on social assistance, if you can call it living when support ranges from about $600 to $900 per month for a single person.

Vancouver and surrounding areas isn’t the cheapest place to live, when a small 1 bedroom in Surrey rents for more than $600 a month.

In the lower mainland Sleep Country Canada takes the beds they pick up from the house of someone who purchased a new bed from them and donates them to Wrags. Maybe Sleep Country Canada receives some tax advantage for this donation to the charity, but I don’t know. I do know they didn’t have to pay the recycling tax on my bed.

Oh yes, the recycling tax. According to the Sleep Country Canada Wikipedia page: “Sleep Country supports numerous charities and community initiatives across Canada. Some of the programs in which they are involved include:

  • Donated Bed Program – As part of their delivery service, Sleep Country Canada provides the removal of an old mattress. These mattresses are when possible donated to those in need, however not all mattresses can be reused, so Sleep Country also has a large number of mattresses that are disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. (Due to the high costs of recycling, Sleep Country now charges $10.00 for the recycling fee to all customers who request their old mattress to be removed.)”

Okay, now I’m confused. Sleep Country Canada charges $10.00 recycling fee to all customers who request their old mattress to be removed, then if the bed is in pretty good shape they donate the bed to a charity like WRAGS who delivers one of these beds to a person living in poverty who is then left having to pay the recycling fee?

Even if Wikipedia information is wrong and Sleep Country Canada doesn’t charge a recycling fee anymore, it still doesn’t make sense for the government, the charity, or the company with the largest volume of mattress sales in Canada to have not thought about why they are passing the recycling tax on to the poorest people in BC.

A couple of days after getting my used mattress and box spring I received an Ikea catalogue in the mail. In it there was a firm Queen size mattress for $199, and another for $299.

I earn a few dollars publishing my ebooks, so I could have saved some of my ebook income for a few months and spent a portion of it on a new bed from Ikea. But I’d still have to get a truck, get people to move it for me or pay Ikea to bring it to my home. And I’d still have to pay the recycling tax. Oh, excuse me. It isn’t a tax, it is a fee, a recycling fee.

Please don’t get me wrong about my feelings regarding Sleep Country Canada. They’ve been recognized as one the best companies to work for in Canada, they support numerous charitable causes, and they employ a lot of people.

But someone in their company, the BC government, or the WRAGS charity was asleep when this recycling program was thought out. Sheesh.

Link to the Wikipedia page on Sleep Country Canada.

Link to Ikea Canada web site.

Link to WRAGS web site.

1 in 8 Canadians living in poverty.

According to an article today in the Vancouver Sun, “Across Canada, 4.3-million people, including 979,000 children and their families, live in poverty (Statistics Canada, 2010 Incomes in Canada). That’s about one in eight people who are living in dire straits in our wealthy land.”

The article also states, “The social and economic costs of poverty are high. Hunger, inadequate nutrition and unsafe housing create hardship for families and result in higher expenditures for health care and social services. These costs of poverty, including the remedial costs of the criminal justice system, must concern us. Poverty leads to higher risks of social and economic exclusion which, in turn, drive up expenditures in policing, the courts, legal aid, criminal prosecutions and corrections along with the considerable pain and suffering experienced by victims of violent crimes. It is estimated that crime and justice-related expenditures alone range from $22 billion to $48 billion per year. Recent changes to legislation that add new mandatory minimum sentences and increase maximum sentences for some crimes are expected to increase costs even more for provinces and territories.”

Stephen Harper and Vic Toews have changed Canadian criminal laws to improve protection for Canadians. Some change.

I say this to Mr. Harper and Mr. Toews; To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often. Change your criminal laws. Change your protection for the people of poverty in Canada.

Read more:

Guaranteed Income making the rounds in Canada, again.

Does it make economic sense to provide a Guaranteed Income to people in Canada? Myself and others believe it does.

The idea of giving money to the poor without strings is not new. It melds altruism and libertarianism, saying both that the best way to fight poverty is to put cash in poor people’s pockets and that people can make their own choices better than bureaucrats can. As a result, it can find support in theory from both left and right.

It has been tested with success in other countries. European nations such as France and Austria, which spend slightly less than one-fifth of their gross domestic products on cash transfers to low-income citizens, have had far more success reducing poverty than Canada has.

In the only experiment of its kind in North America, every household in Dauphin, Manitoba, in the mid 1970’s, was given access to a guaranteed annual budget, subject to their income level. For a family of five, payments equalled about $18,000 a year in today’s dollars.

Politicians primarily wanted to see if people would stop working. While the project was pre-empted by a change in government, a second look by researchers has found that there was only a slight decline in work – mostly among mothers, who chose to stay home with their children, and teenaged boys, who stayed in school longer.

Evelyn Forget, a researcher in medicine at the University of Manitoba, reports that Dauphin also experienced a 10-per-cent drop in hospital admissions and fewer doctor visits, especially for mental-health issues.

This week, a House of Commons committee on poverty released a report proposing a guaranteed basic income for Canadians with disabilities, on the model already available to seniors.

Read the whole article in the Globe and Mail here.