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Growing gap between haves and have-nots a moral crisis for the U.S.

Historically, there have long been those who have much wealth and those who have very little or none. No one realistically expects that the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" could ever be eliminated. A gap perseveres by inheritance, gre...

Historically, there have long been those who have much wealth and those who have very little or none. No one realistically expects that the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" could ever be eliminated. A gap perseveres by inheritance, greater ability, hard work, good luck and/or a combination of these or other traits, earned or unearned.

The United States has long prided itself on opportunities that enable some individuals to climb out of the have-nots category and into the "middle class." Unfortunately, the middle class is shrinking as more people slip into the have-nots class, and more people occupy the two extremes. Unfortunately, the have-nots group is much larger and growing faster. We applaud the growing number of haves. But should the have-nots be expanding to such an extent in our land of opportunity? Are we still the land of opportunity for all, or are we the former land of opportunity for so many of those mired in the have-nots group?

We Americans claim values -- humanitarian values, family values and, for most people, religious values. Does that jibe with the increasing number of people in the have-nots category? How about the number of families with mom and pop both working minimum-wage jobs and still forced to live below the poverty level? This embarrassing truth exists in a very wealthy nation.

What kind of evidence supports this growth in the have-nots segment of the U.S.? Neal Peirce, a Washington Post columnist, cited three pieces of evidence: More than 30 million Americans working full time earn $8.70 per hour or less, which is less than the poverty level ($18,000 annually) for a family of four; working families account for 80 percent of the 43 million American adults who don't have health coverage; and there isn't a single area of the U.S. where a household with only one full-time, minimum-wage worker can afford to rent a modest, one-bedroom apartment.

There are numerous examples of great need, including charitable organizations that provide food. The Salvation Army and similar organizations cite growing needs. This spread between the haves and the have-nots exists and is growing. Gated communities are expanding rapidly, and the homes of the wealthy continue to grow splendiferously. Not to mention second homes, vacation homes and resort homes, and the list goes on and on. Expensive vacations and other luxuries are great for those who can afford them, but shouldn't we be a bit more concerned about our fellow citizens who can't afford basic needs in our country of plenty? Luxuries are wonderful, but shouldn't everyone who is willing to work have basic necessities?

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Why do responsible citizens and humanitarians who claim human values, and the churches that teach values to their children, not speak out with increased passion about this growing unfairness? Those who do speak out seem to be rather tentative. Marketing is king, and purchasing turns the wheels of the economy. Some would even say greed is good in a capitalistic society -- which reminds me of the farmer who once said, "I'm not greedy; I just want the land that joins mine."

Most people do claim humanitarian values. Some say they were taught those values by their parents, and they do their best to teach them to their children. Others say their church teaches such values. What has happened to these commendable values as we note the hardships of fellow American citizens -- our brothers and sisters in the human race, really -- growing and growing? Can we conscientiously and silently watch them lose that race?

I grew up on a hardscrabble dairy farm nine miles west of Menomonie, Wis., during the Depression days. Times were tough. I don't remember any haves in our neighborhood. If there were any haves, they were careful to avoid demonstrating such an appearance. Luckily, President Franklin D. Roosevelt provided the leadership to turn our desperate nation around with concern for the have-nots. He said a great nation is one that cares for its citizens in need. Help was provided, and the Depression became history.

The minimum wage has remained stagnant for several years. CEOs have earned salaries 400 times the average worker and are retiring with stock options and pensions that seem morally indecent with the growing number of have-nots in a society that claims human values. The head of Exxon-Mobil, for example, recently earned $368 million in a year, which is more per hour than his workers earned in a year.

Evidence now exists that our country needs to turn the corner once again. Who cares? I do and hope you do. We can be fair. We should be fair. We could talk the talk and truthfully strive to walk the walk.

Bernie Hughes of Superior is professor emeritus of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

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