As one takes a glimpse at the economic and social problems ailing the US , one cannot help but ask if there are similarities between the fall of the former Soviet Union and the current free-fall of the United States . For that matter, it is important to look at the current state of affairs in Russia and measure them against that taking place currently in the United States .
Is Obama our Gorbachav? The Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, cuts in social services throughout the nation, economic bankruptcy, corruption, a growing billionaire class, thirty years of rising inequality and chronic poverty all seem to suggest he just might be.
The former Soviet Union, now known as Russia , currently has a population of about 141 million people (About.com Geography, January 2010, Rosenberg, Matt, http://geography.about.com/b/2010/01/02/is-russias-population-growing.htm).
In August 2009, the Guardian News online news out of Great Britain reported that:
According to Russia ‘s state committee on statistics, the figure for Russians living below the poverty line went up to 24.5 million during the first three months of this year – a steep increase from 18.5 million by the end of 2008.
The rise follows years in which Russians saw their living standards improve under the former president Vladimir Putin (now prime minister), largely thanks to a buoyant oil price, and Russia ‘s status as the world’s largest gas exporter. This improvement has now come to a juddering halt.
Instead, more Russian families than ever before are sliding into poverty – defined as an adult income of less than 5,497 roubles, or £110, a month (Millions more Russians shunted into poverty” (Huge rise in number living on less than £110 a month” (Decade of relative wealth under Putin wiped out, August 31, 2009, Luke Harding, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/aug/31/russia-economy-poverty-increase-putin)
The Times of India found that Russia saw rapid economic growth of 5.6% in 2008, 8.1% in 2007 and 7.7% in 2006. But it has been hard hit by the economic crisis and the government is expecting the economy to shrink 8.5% this year (Poverty rate rises by a third in Russia . Times of India , August 8, 2009,http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NEWS/World/Europe/Poverty-rate-rises-by-a-third-in-Russia-/articleshow/4945939.cm).
This means roughly 18% of the Russian people live in poverty. The problem of poverty is of course worse for Russian children. Take the grand imperial buildings of St. Petersburg , Russia . Here there is a population of street children struggling to survive. Their population has steadily gone up, year by year.
The Russian Methodist, Reverend Rauza Landorf noted:
“The parents have alcohol or drug addiction and they are not interested in the lives of their own children.”
Russians consume nearly twice the global average of alcohol … and the effects are far-reaching” (United Methodist TV August 12, 20099http://umtv.org/archives/refuge_for_russian_street_children.htm
Russia has 1 million street children, and one in four crimes involves underage youths. Officially, the number of children without supervision is more than 700,000. However, experts believe the real figure has long been between 2 and 4 million (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_children#Street_children_in_Russia).
In Russia, street children usually find a home in underground pipe and cable collectors during the harsh winter. These underground homes offer space, shelter and most importantly of all, heat from hot water and central heating pipes” (ibid).
In the words of Natalia Zubarevich, a professor of economic geography at Moscow ‘s state university:
“Russians are adept at dealing with crises; many grow vegetables in small kitchen gardens to survive, and others rely on a network of close relatives. Most willingly accept unpaid time off work, or reduced salaries.” (ibid).
UNICEF, as early as 2005 noted these facts regarding Russian poverty and especially children:
“There are also important shifts taking place in the age-profile of poverty. In a number of countries, children have become the majority of the poor. Indeed, the World Bank data points out that here in Russia while adults in age group 18-45yrs have benefited from economic growth between 1999-2002, the highest incidence of poverty- and the greatest rate of deterioration- has been in the 0-14yrs age group. Among children!
There is also a question of ‘time’. For older generation of Russians who experienced poverty during the decade of transition, social and economic hardships are still perceived by and large as something of a temporary nature. But for poor children, poverty has already become the only way of life they have experienced. This sense of “normalcy” of being poor contains a great risk for the future of any society. For children the period spent in poverty is often the vital period of their lives ((http://www.unicef.org/ceecis/media_3372.html)
The recent report prepared by UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre “Child Poverty in Rich Countries 2005” finds that three fundamental forces - social trends (including demographics), labor market conditions, and, most importantly, government policies – are the key determinants of child poverty rates. In particular, the issue of a government commitment to fighting poverty among children and the choice of policies that are actually implemented can make a significant difference (ibid).
The Russian class system
It is difficult to find new statistics on Russian inequality. The latest I could find were from 2009 and of course the situation is much worse now. But as the picture accompanying this article displays, the young Russian ruling class hardly cares.
According to the World Socialist Web site in 2005:
“Figures showing the distribution of wealth reveal the glaring nature of this social polarization. According to government data, the incomes of the very richest members of Russian society are 15 times those of the poorest—one of the highest levels of social inequality to be found among the world’s leading countries. In Moscow , this difference is 53-fold” (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2005/mar2005/russ-m11.shtml)
The also found in 2005 that:
“Most of the poor workers are employed in the public sector, including teachers, physicians and low-ranking civil servants. The occupations with the lowest incomes—including those employed in the health services, such as nurses and medics—are of great social importance. The poor living conditions of those employed in these sectors contribute to a decline in the structures upon which a functioning society is based (ibid)”.
As in the United States pensioners and young people constitute the poorest sections of Russian society. The Social Opinions Fund has found that practically no young people (just 1 percent) are saving for their old age. Two thirds of young people who were asked said they could not afford to buy anything. Young people living in the countryside or in small cities are at greatest risk of being poor. In contrast to Western countries, where poverty is often concentrated in the large cities, the poor are more frequently found in Russia ’s villages and towns (ibid).
The World Socialist Web site went on to note:
“ Russia is ranked third in the world for the number of billionaires, and thirteenth for having the largest enterprises.
Taken as a whole, the fortunes of Russia ’s billionaires amount to nearly half as much as the total value of the largest Russian enterprises. By comparison, in the US , this sum amounts to 6 percent.
The greatest part of shareholdings in the largest Russian enterprises can be found in the hands of this tiny social layer. According to the World Bank, in 2003, the 23 largest business groups account for 57 percent of all of Russia ’s industrial production.
Forbes magazine has calculated that, measured against the economic output of the country ($458 billion), there are more billionaires in Russia (36) than anywhere else in the world. The total assets of these 36 richest Russians amounts to $110 billion—24 percent of the country’s economic output” (ibid).
The listed net worth represents the estimated value of assets less debt as of February 13, 2009. The list does not include heads of state whose wealth is tied to their position (see List of heads of state and government by net worth).
There were 793 officially known billionaires in the world, down from 1,125 a year ago, as of 2009 (The World’s Billionaires Luisa Kroll, Matthew Miller and Tatiana Serafin, March 11, 2009, http://www.forbes.com/2009/03/11/worlds-richest-people-billionaires-2009-billionaires_land.html).
Of course this has all changed since 2003-2005. To begin with the number of billionaires has fallen due to the Second Great Depression. Secondly, the poverty rate has risen, and it has especially hit children. Yet when a billionaire takes a hit of say a 20% loss in the value of their assets and a person in poverty or a working class member of society gets the same backhand, the situation worsens dramatically for those already suffering from poverty. And this is what has happened in the former Soviet Union . But not for everybody. The existence of a small elite ruling class still enjoys the growing inequality and child poverty.
The World Socialist Web notes:
“New Year celebrations are the high point of profligate consumption for the Russian nouveaux riches. The International Herald Tribune reported recently that some 20,000 Russians “wallowed in luxury, ate, drank and went shopping” in the elite boutiques of the ski resort of Courchevel, which lies in a snow-covered corner of the French Alps. In this spa resort can be found four-star hotels like Les Grandes Alpes, where a room costs between 550 and 1,250 euros ($704 and $1,600) per night. In the hotel restaurant, one can drink wines for a mere 1,750 euros ($2,239) a bottle. A new suite opened in the hotel Byblos des Neiges recently that measures 220 square metres and costs 6,500 euros ($8,318) a night (ibd)”.
Russian billionaire youth
The Poverty Rate in the United States
The United States has a population more than twice that of Russia , approximately 300 million people. In the United States poverty has been rising at deplorable levels in recent decades. But how is poverty defined? This is a problem and why the figures, as gross as they are, mask the reality. The National Center for Children Poverty asked: “How does the U.S. measure poverty?” The answer is revealing:
“The U.S. government measures poverty by a narrow income standard that does not include other aspects of economic status, such as material hardship (for example, living in substandard housing) or debt, nor does it consider financial assets (including savings or property). The official poverty measure is a specific dollar amount that varies by family size but is the same across the continental U.S. According to the guidelines, the poverty level in 2008 is $21,200 a year for a family of four and $17,600 for a family of three (see table). 1 The poverty guidelines are used to determine eligibility for public programs. A similar but more complex measure is used for calculating poverty rates.
The current poverty measure was established in the 1960s and is now widely acknowledged to be flawed. 2 It was based on research indicating that families spent about one-third of their incomes on food – the official poverty level was set by multiplying food costs by three. Since then, the figures have been updated annually for inflation but have otherwise remained unchanged” (June 2008, http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_825.html).
The poverty rate in the United States , based on the irrational guidelines explained above show, according to the Department of Human Health and Services:
official number of poor in the US in 2008 is 39.1 million people, greater in number but not percentage than the officially poor in Indonesia, which has a far lower Human Development Index and the indexed largest population after the United States (2009, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_United_States#Recent_poverty_rate_and_guidelines)
This means more than 13% of United States citizens live in poverty.
The report also found that:
Nearly 14 million children in the United States – 19% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,050 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 41% of children live in low-income families.
Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or deep and persistent poverty.
Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being. But effective public policies – to make work pay for low-income parents and to provide high-quality early care and learning experiences for their children – can make a difference. Investments in the most vulnerable children are also critical (2009, http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_912.html).
Mark Mather, of the Population Reference Bureau found in 2008 census data that:
“the latest census data also showed an increase in child poverty, from 17 percent to 18 percent between 2006 and 2007. Most of this increase was driven by worsening economic conditions among children in African American and Latino families. In 2007, more than a third of black children and over a quarter of Latino children were poor, compared to 1 in 10 non-Hispanic white children.
The data also showed a growing gap in economic well-being between the population under age 18 and those ages 65 and older. In 2007, the child poverty rate (18 percent) was 8 percentage points higher than the poverty rate for elderly Americans, up from a 6 percentage-point gap in 2000” (Mark Mather,U.S. Child Poverty Rates Increase Despite Rising National Incomes, Population Reference Bureau, August 2008, http://www.prb.org/Articles/2008/uschildpovertyrates.aspx).
He also found that In 2007, the child poverty rate (18 percent) was 8 percentage points higher than the poverty rate for elderly Americans, up from a 6 percentage-point gap in 2000 (ibid). In other words the kids get the short end of the poverty stick.
The United States class society
Of the 793 officially known billionaires in the world as of 2009, 98 are United States citizens. Their total net worth jumped 18 percent to $2.6 trillion (CNN Money, March 9, 2006 http://money.cnn.com/2006/03/09/news/newsmakers/billionaires_forbes/index.htm).
Americans account for 44% of the billionaire money and 45% of the list’s slots, up seven and three percentage points from last year (2008), respectively (Forbes, The World’s Billionaires, Luisa Kroll, Matthew Miller and Tatiana Serafin http://www.forbes.com/2009/03/11/worlds-richest-people-billionaires-2009-billionaires_land.html).
And although the richest people in the world have gotten poorer, just like the rest of us, this year the world’s billionaires have an average net worth of $3 billion, and that is down 23% in 12 months (ibid).
As to the alcoholic rate among United States citizens, it is estimated to be 13% (http://www.emedicinehealth.com/alcoholism/article_em.htm) while the illegal substance abuse in the United States was estimated in 2008, to be 20.1 million Americans aged 12 or older who were current (past month) illicit drug users, meaning they had used an illicit drug during the month prior to the survey interview. This estimate represents 8.0 percent of the population aged 12 years old or older. Illicit drugs include marijuana/hashish, cocaine (including crack), heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, or prescription-type psychotherapeutics used non-medically (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Office of Applied Studies http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/nsduh/2k8nsduh/2k8Results.cfm#2.1).
According to Andreana Reeves of Stanford, the average age of a homeless person in the United States is nine, and there are many kids below the age of nine on the streets, some with their families but most trying to survive on their own. Currently there are 1.3 million homeless and runaway street kids in the United States , not counting children who were forced out of their homes, abandoned by the foster care system, or are part of a homeless family. Poverty and homelessness in America is an obvious and disturbing issue. But what is less obvious and even more disturbing is that a great majority of the poor and homeless are teens and children. In the U.S. , one out of every four homeless individuals is a child. Despite this population’s very real existence, they do not exist to many people (Andreana Reeves , America’s Forgotten Children,Homeless and Street Youth, Stanford University ,http://http:/www.stanford.edu/group/nightoutreach/streetforum/volume1/Issue3/Focus/forgotten.htm).
Will the US go the way of the Soviet Union ?
This is a good question. Who knows? So many facts change on the ground. What we do know is that like the former Soviet Union the United States is crumbling economically and socially and with this comes decreases in mortality rates, hyper use of drugs and alcohol coupled with pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for everything from depression to anxiety and psychosis. Poverty among US youth has risen significantly and with it the same problem of children living on the street, drug use and crime.
Governmental policies are most definitely the key determiner of child poverty in America , Russia or elsewhere. When this governmental policy is aimed at bailing out big banks, assuring that No CEO is Left Behind, subsidizing corporations to further hollow out America by outsourcing jobs, promoting a free trade policy that is paid for in broken lives and urban despair, war that sucks up fifty cents of every federal tax dollar, and a taxation policy that favors the rich over the suffering masses, we know historically this can only lead to growing poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and social disintegration.
The United States is in big trouble as a society. Mikhail Gorbachav was the second-to-last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, serving from 1985 until 1991, and the last head of state of the USSR, serving from 1988 until its collapse in 1991 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Gorbachev). He begged the US to stop the Jihadist war in Afghanistan , but to no avail. Barrack Obama was elected in 2008. He has now continued the war in Afghanistan , in its 8th year that helped bring down the Soviet Union . Is Barrack Obama our Gorbachav? Is the Soviet war in Afghanistan now the US war in Afghanistan ? And if the answer is yes to one or both of these questions, what can we expect? What will it spell for our citizens? What will it spell for our lives?