Row of men at the New York City docks sit, out of work, during the Great Depression in 1934. *National Archives/MCT PHOTO
Row of men at the New York City docks sit, out of work, during the Great Depression in 1934. *National Archives/MCT PHOTO

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30: The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. That old saying is never truer than it is during an economic downturn like Bermuda is experiencing these days.

Even if the rich are losing money, the poor suffer more. They are the ones most likely to lose their jobs and, having lost them, find it hardest to find another job elsewhere.

They are the ones with less education, less flexibility to choose between jobs, and less wherewithal to retrain for something new.

They are the ones with fewer savings and investments with which to cushion the blow.

They are the ones who count their homes as their greatest asset, when they own one at all. Even that asset is worth less during bad times, and can be
nearly impossible to liquidate.

What’s more, the less wealthy are the ones who are likely to owe the most money on their houses, and the most likely to find their house worth less than they owe on it.

So the gap between the two – the richest of the land and the poorest — grows greater than ever.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that recently released US Census Bureau data (based on 2009 figures) showed that — by some measures — the gap between the wealthy and the poor has reached an 80-year high.

In 1928, the wealthiest .001 per cent of the US population owned 892 times more than 90 per cent of the population. Today, the top .001 per cent owns 976 times more than the “bottom” 90 per cent.

The same data shows that the median wealth of US white households is 20 times that of black households — the largest gap in 25 years.

Does the same situation exist in Bermuda?

We don’t have detailed, published data on wealth in Bermuda. But common sense – and a quick look around you — suggests that a disproportionate amount of wealth is still in white hands in Bermuda too.

With the advent of international business, and the demise of tourism, it seems safe to assume that the gap between the very wealthy and the ordinary Bermudian has grown significantly.

I hope the wealth gap — between white and black, and between the very wealthy and the rest of Bermuda — isn’t nearly as big as it is in the US.

Because of our past, blacks are less likely to own property or enjoy inheritances. Our annual employment surveys make clear that whites, on the whole, earn significantly more than blacks in Bermuda.

And of course one of the things people do if they have money — white people and black people alike — is ensure their children get a good education and a head start in life.

So the gap tends to perpetuate, even in the best of times. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. And when times are tough, the poor get poorer still.

People generally have a remarkable tolerance for inequity.

But there’s no question that a wealth gap causes more than just poverty. It causes discontent. It causes unhappiness. It causes political instability, increased crime, increased stress on citizens, and strains on areas of government like health and social services.

Struggle

Many Bermudians have struggled hard over long years to make Bermuda prosperous, to build a strong middle class, and to overcome the effects of our racist history and unequal present.

We cannot afford to have hard economic times pull us farther apart again.

That is a very important reason — among the many — why we cannot afford to think of building a strong economy as being separate from building a fairer one.

We can’t have one without the other.

We cannot be afraid of spending time and money on helping less wealthy Bermudians improve
themselves and their children.

At the same time, we cannot be afraid of doing what needs to be done to make Bermuda more attractive to international business and tourism.

Hard times don’t help anyone, least of all those who need help most.