OP-ED: Economic inequity has gone bananas

Josh Hoxie
Tribune News Service
A man sells bananas near a quarantined banana plantation affected by a destructive fungus near Riohacha, Colombia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. A disease that ravages banana crops has made its long-dreaded arrival in Latin America, reigniting worries about the global market's dependence on a single type of banana, the Cavendish. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Three collectors recently took home some unconventional offerings from Art Basel, a famous art show held annually in Miami Beach. Each artwork consisted of a banana duct-taped to a wall. Two sold for $120,000, one for $150,000.

For a banana. And some tape.

Unfortunately, this fruity farce is just one small sign of the growing gap between the whims of the absurdly wealthy and the challenges facing everyone else.

During the same week as the banana bonanza in Miami Beach, the Trump administration announced its plans to slash the rolls of the nation’s nutrition assistance program. That means nearly 700,000 people face the prospect of going hungry when the new rules take effect on April 1.

More:OP-ED: On economic policy, it’s not what Trump says, it’s what he does

More:OP-ED: President Trump is working for Pennsylvania

The Trump administration’s action is part of a multi-part effort to dramatically reduce the scale of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, sometimes called food stamps). If other elements of the plan go forward, nearly 3 million additional people could be cut from the program, and nearly a million school children would lose free or reduced lunches.

Let them eat banana cake?

The new series of rule changes proposed by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue would eliminate work-requirement exemptions for single adults living in areas without job prospects, remove families with incomes up to 200% of the poverty level, and cut families who have more than just $2,250 in assets — or $3,500, if someone in the family has a disability.

Put differently, the changes would make people who hold assets totaling the value of a rusted old Honda Civic ineligible for food assistance.

And as this is happening, the rich are making conspicuous displays of their good fortune.

A few miles from where the infamous duct-taped banana was sold, a hedge-fund billionaire just bought his fourth Palm Beach vacation home for $111 million. Fourth! Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage pays less than the cost of living in every major city in the country. And it hasn’t gone up in 10 years.

It might be funny if it weren’t so appalling.

The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We have ample resources here to provide for basic human needs and ensure that people will at least not starve.

Just three billionaires own more wealth than the bottom half of the country combined, my colleague Chuck Collins and I found in a study for the Institute for Policy Studies last year. Meanwhile, one in seven kids will go to bed hungry tonight — and a lot more in the coming months, if the proposed Trump administration rules go into effect.

A tax on immense wealth would put a check on the concentration of wealth at the top, as Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have proposed. This could raise enough revenue to make sure everyone has enough to eat, and enjoy other basic human rights like medical care.

There is no justification for the Trump administration slashing nutrition assistance to the poor. And as a society, we cannot afford to tolerate a few people being wealthy enough to throw six figures at rotting bananas while millions go hungry.

— Josh Hoxie, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, is currently completing a master of social work program at Boston College. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.