The "Third Worldization" of America

from the book

Dark Victory

by Walden Bello

published by

Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), 1994


The 1980s ended with the top 20 per cent of the population having the largest share of total income, while the bottom 60 per cent had the lowest share of total income ever recorded. Indeed, within the top 20 per cent, the gains of the Reagan-Bush period were concentrated in the top 1 per cent, whose income grew by 63 per cent between 1980 and 1989, capturing over 53 per cent of the total income growth among all families. Meanwhile, the bottom 60 per cent of families actually experienced a decline in income.

The same radically regressive trends were evident in wealth holdings, which were even more concentrated than income:

[I]n l989, the top 1 percent of families earned 14.1% total income, yet owned 38.3% of total net worth and 50.3% of net financial assets. The wealth distribution has also become more unequal over time. The wealth holdings of the richest 0.5% of families grew by one percentage point over the entire 21-year period, 1962-83, but grew by four times as much in just six years between 1983 and 1989. Meanwhile, the bottom 60% of families had lower wealth holdings in 1989 than 1983.35

The trends revealed a middle class that was losing ground. Median family incomes for 1990 and 1991 dropped to their levels of the late 1970s when adjusted for taxes and inflation. But even more alarming was the fact that these trends translated into greater poverty and hunger among the more vulnerable sectors of the population.

The percentage of whites living in poverty rose from 9 per cent in 1979 to 10 per cent in 1989. In the case of Hispanics, the increase was from 22 to 26 per cent, while black poverty remained steady at 31 per cent. While the ratio of black to white incomes did not change much, with black median income remaining at 60 per cent that of whites, the ratio of Hispanic to white median income fell from 69 per cent in 1979 to 65 per cent in 1989. Despite the differences in racial impact, it is clear that the most prominent feature in the Reagan rollback was its class character.

That their circumstances had not declined further with respect to whites according to some social indicators was, of course, cold comfort for blacks, for the inequalities that remained the same or became only slightly more pronounced are nevertheless stark: average black per capita income is now less than 60 per cent that of whites; 13 per cent of blacks are jobless compared with 6 per cent for whites; and the life expectancy of black males is seven years less than that of white males.

By the end of the Republican era, the United States, a congressional study asserted, had become 'the most unequal of modern nations.' Some 20 million Americans were said to be experiencing hunger; 25 million of them - some one in every 10 - were receiving federal food stamps. The child poverty rate, which had risen from 18 per cent in 1980 to 22 percent in 1991, was the highest among the industrialized countries. Among children in minority groups, the poverty rate was even higher, at almost 50 per cent.

Indeed, structural adjustment Republican-style was beginning to give the US a Third World appearance: rising poverty, widespread homelessness, greater inequality, social polarization. But perhaps it was the condition of infants that most starkly captured the 'Third Worldization' of America. The infant mortality rate for African Americans now stands at 17.7 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. This figure compares unfavorably not only to those for most other industrial countries but even to figures for some of the developing countries of the Caribbean, such as Jamaica (17.2 per 1,000), Trinidad (16.3), and Cuba (16).


from the book
Dark Victory by Walden Bello
published by
Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First)
398 60 th Street, Oakland, CA 94618

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Third World in United States