We lead developed world in poverty and inequality

Late last month, buried beneath the noise of last-minute presidential campaigning, a 2008 report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) cited rising inequality and poverty among member states. Press-released in Paris, this newsworthy point hardly made it into American press.

Noticeably, among developed OECD nations the United States ranked highest in both categories: inequality level and poverty rate. This may surprise few but the import of this information must no longer elude leaders — including President-elect Barack Obama.

As America aims to further realign its recessing economy, and with unemployment peaking at 6.5 percent, our highest since 1994, the bailouts brokered must not only bear in mind the “haves” but also the “have-nots” — and in America there are many in the latter category.

In its report, the OECD noted that a key driver of income inequality was, unsurprisingly, unemployment, a status which often stems from lack of skills and poor education. Going further, the report asserted that increasing employment is the best way of reducing poverty — again, hardly news for anyone immersed in the essentials of economic development.

What continues to confound the conscience, however, is the difficulty in drumming up determination in the world’s most developed democracy to change this detrimental dynamic.

From Baltimore and Buffalo to Long Beach and El Paso — a sampling of America’s poorest cities — this country’s economic woes are worsening and Washington must posthaste seek quick remedy. And in ameliorating America’s economic blight, there will come with it a concurrent quelling of violence on the very impoverished streets we aim to employ.

Take Baltimore, for example. While the city maintains on average 4 percent unemployment — roughly 2.5 percentage points lower than the national average — school dropout rates are approaching near-pandemic levels. With one of the lowest secondary school graduation rates in the country, at 34 percent among the urban population, cities like Baltimore are the open wounds on which OECD data operates.

Why worry about Baltimore in particular? Because we know that a 1 percent increase in unemployment is accompanied by a 6 percent increase in homicides. Because the higher the percentage living in relative poverty, the higher the number of violent offenses. Because a 10 percent drop in male enrollment in secondary school increases the risk of violent conflict by roughly 4 percent.

Given Baltimore’s unemployment, poverty and education rates, is it any wonder then that the city tops the charts on violent crime with five times the national murder rate, three times the national robbery rate, and nearly three times the national aggravated assault and arson rates?

This relationship is not coincidental; it is entirely correlational. (Interestingly, the same goes for U.S. security quagmires like the tribal regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan where unemployment rates are as high as 80 percent, educational enrollment as low as 25 percent, and average income rates as dastardly as $15 per month. The violence there too is not coincidental.) The key is to ferret out a financial fix to inequality and poverty that simultaneously recognizes the savings of violence prevented on American streets. That is also how you make it palatable to the public.

Maryland’s own Sargent Shriver recognized this when spearheading this nation’s first War on Poverty. Headquartered in the U.S. government’s Office of Economic Opportunity — an office no longer in existence — the war-room mentality was ever-present. Shriver foresaw the looming security threat facing America. In creating the Peace Corps, Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA, Community Action Program, and Legal Services to the Poor, the farsighted Shriver understood that poverty was inextricably linked to the security of the nation and that nothing short of a war was needed.

Now is no different, and given OECD’s findings perhaps a second waging of the war on poverty is warranted. President-elect Obama is potentially poised to do this but he cannot do it single-handedly. As President John F. Kennedy’s advisers formed the necessary foundation for President Lyndon Johnson to subsequently advance the first war on poverty, so too would a second war need all hands on deck. But hopefully Obama, who has often been compared to Kennedy, does not have to wait until his successor arrives to see the fruits of his labor.

The real change we need in this country is to take serious the “growing unequal,” as the OECD calls it. The U.S. as a global beacon of inequality and poverty rates is not what our founding fathers were thinking, nor is it conscionable. We need a modern-day Shriver to once again take the helm in Round Two of this war on poverty, eliminating once and for all the festering wound which, left unaddressed, will only foster more, not less, violence in the coming years.

We need to bridge our growing gap of inequality — and quickly.

Gilchrest is serving his 9th term in Maryland’s 1st district. Shank is communications director at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in Arlington, Va.