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Raffique Shah


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Inequality Breeds Unrest

By Raffique Shah
Nov 13, 2011

As I watch the “Occupy Wall Street” phenomenon spread its wings of protest across much of the developed world, I cannot help but feel nostalgic.

Those of us who experienced the global rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s must also feel a sense of déjà vu, of having been there, done that. I ask myself: is this a generational upheaval that has erupted to complete unfinished business of that golden era of humanism?

Maybe we in Trinidad and Tobago are too preoccupied with the State of Emergency, exuberant over the lifting of the curfew, to think about what other people are doing in pursuit of social and economic justice. I was amused more than surprised when I saw images of mostly young people celebrating the end of the curfew with the most expensive drinks money could buy. It was as if “freedom-ah-come” for an enslaved people who had acquired champagne taste on mauby pockets.

Whether or not they realise it, the youth of today will experience the hardships of tomorrow more than my generation did. We are in the departure lounge of life. Whatever the ‘morrow brings, be it declining health and medical bills or shrinking sustenance as food costs soar, we will have little choice but to endure it.

We endured poverty when we were young. In my own case, much like most of my relatives and friends, we weren’t dirt-poor. We enjoyed at least two decent meals a day, and we had no fewer than three sets of clothing and one pair of shoes. Others, less fortunate, were lucky to have one meal a day, and many children attended school barefooted.

Our parents’ dogged determination to see their children rise from a state of persistent poverty to enjoy reasonable standards of living, saw us strive to gain an education or master a trade that would be our ticket to comfort. Most of us seized the opportunities and were able to lift our living standards, and by extension, our children’s.

Also, there were jobs at the end of the education tunnel. In instances, they didn’t pay well, like the “packages” today’s educated enjoy. But we had learned to “eat a little, live longer”, a mantra hammered into our heads by our mostly illiterate elders. It’s why, today, I can eat bhagi-dhal-and-rice and feel contended.

More important, as we travelled through life facing its many challenges, we had learned to save something, however small, from our paltry pay packets. We also learned the value of hard work. The ordinary jobs we held carried with them retirement benefits that, while they are not generous (in most cases—there are exceptions), they enable us to survive in our autumn years.

What of Generation X? Mostly, they are better educated than we were. Many of my contemporaries might disagree with that notion, and they do have a point: let’s say they have more certificates than we did. They enjoy the advantages of modern technology that have advanced light years in our lifetime. Most of those who successfully complete the paper chase hold down jobs that pay well. They are the ones who can afford a $40 shot-drink to celebrate the end of the curfew.

However, they live in very uncertain times, in a world that is becoming increasingly polarised as the rich-poor gap widens. Even as they enjoy the good life, as they might describe it, serious dangers lie ahead that could make their latter years living hell.

Which is what the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is about—fighting against gross inequalities that make a mockery of democracy. The top 20 per cent of Americans control about 84 per cent of their country’s wealth. According to a Guardian (UK) report in 2010, the top ten per cent of Britons’ average wealth stood at £853,000; the bottom ten per cent average £8,000—one hundred times less!

I don’t know what the numbers are for our country, but I am sure they are little different to what obtain in developed countries (hey, we recently got promoted to this exclusive club!). That disparity in wealth may not trigger outrage among our young people, not just yet. But systemic inequality breeds bitter unrest.

In North America and Europe, tens of thousands of young university graduates cannot find jobs that are consistent with their qualifications. Many of them, recognising that a first degree guaranteed them nothing, did post-graduate work to better equip them for the job-market. It did not quite work out that way. They remain unemployed, or under-employed.

To top off their woes, they see the wealthy get away with taxpayers-funded grand-theft, almost literally. Bankers and financiers who misled institutions into disarray, partly triggering the crash of 2008, have received generous bailouts from governments, and are bold enough to claim handsome bonuses—even as ordinary citizens starve.

Here, the enquiry into the collapse of CLICO and the HCU has put in the public domain grave disparities in income distribution. When a UWI graduate who remains unemployed (and there are many such youngsters) hears about managers making $5 million a month or more, by dubious, maybe devious, means, how does that person feel?

Worse, when the so-called white-collar criminals escape paying for their misdeeds though the complexities of a legal and judicial maze, what message is being sent to the young, qualified and ambitious?

Our young and deprived have not yet rekindled the mood and spirit of the 1960s, when we fought for less. But they will lash out sometime soon if we do not take concrete steps to re-draft the social contract.

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