The chasm between us

Katrina has exposed the scale of US inequality, but we have little reason to be smug about our own social divide
Polly Toynbee
Friday September 9, 2005

Remember shock and awe? It was meant to radiate a might never seen before on the face of the earth. Armed as no power has ever been, pre-eminent as only Rome before it, America the all-conquering would spread democracy across the globe by the force of its invincible armoury. When daisycutters dropped on a Taliban that fled leaving their hot dinners on the frontline, when Baghdad fell with hardly a battle, shock and awe looked easy.

Now the shock is something else. It is the shock of discovering that Oz is only an optical illusion and the Wizard is a small man with no magic power after all. America now looks like some fearsome robotic dinosaur stomping across the landscape, a gigantic Power Ranger toy, all bright gadgets and display but no power and nothing inside. It's Buzz Lightyear. It can't actually do anything useful after all.

The hollow superpower stands exposed, but it may take a little while for the world to readjust its set to this new reality. Just as everything has been reimagined after the end of the old cold war, now the single superpower scenario is in need of urgent revision. Iraq has shown that smart missiles, heavy-metal techno-tricks and soldiers whose helmets are electronically controlled from Southern Command in Tampa, are virtually useless. The lessons that the Vietcong on bicycles thought they had taught the behemoth are being learned all over again as failure and calamity stare the White House in the face.

This the world has seen unfold nightly on the news as civil war engulfs Iraq, exactly as forewarned by all the war's opponents. What irony that Iran, the heart of America's "axis of evil", without lifting a finger or firing a shot, will win its historic ambition to breathe its influence across both Afghanistan and Iraq. As the US finds that the power to break nations is useless without the power to make them, shock and awe is over.

But it took Hurricane Katrina to expose the real emptiness under the US carapace. No wonder governing Iraq was far beyond the competence of a nation so feebly governed within its own borders. How does a state where half the voters don't believe in government, run anything well? A nation ideologically and constitutionally committed to non-government is bound to crumble at the core. Rome had no doubts about governance.

What the great Louisiana catastrophe has revealed is a country that is not a country at all, but atomised, segmented individuals living parallel lives as far apart as possible, with nothing to unite them beyond the idea of a flag. The 40 million with no health insurance show the social dysfunction corroding US capacity. For the poor at the bottom of the New Orleans mud heap, there never was even the American dream to cling to. They always lived in another country.

The born-agains absolve themselves from sympathy with the victims by explaining Katrina as God's wrath on the Sodom-and-Gomorrah sins of New Orleans. But it took the mother of the nation, Barbara Bush, to perfectly capture rich America's distance from the scene. Visiting refugees in the Houston Astrodome, she pronounced them lucky: "So many of the people were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." She let slip darker fears: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas." Katrina lifts the lid on the hidden America invisible in sitcoms, but above all shows how the rich don't acknowledge shared nationhood with the rest.

So to talk of "average" incomes or GDP per capita in the US is meaningless: there is no "average", only first world and third world, with virtually no mobility between the two. International figures should no longer be given in such crude statistics. Who has what defines a nation, not how much is in the pot from which only the well-off feed. OECD figures on health, wealth or employment should all be reconfigured to describe where the money lies within nations. If Bill Gates moved to Albania its GDP would soar meaninglessly. A statisticians' joke says that a man with his head in the oven and his feet in the fridge is on average OK: in reality he's dead.

Yesterday's UN Human Development Report confirms a growing volume of international research showing that extreme inequality within nations does great damage whatever a country's overall wealth. Poorer countries sharing more fairly get better health, crime, education and social results than richer but more unequal countries. Since people are finely attuned to social status, the fate of those at the bottom of a pecking order within a rich society is far worse than those in a poor country who feel they belong among the generality. The UN figures show that exclusion kills, in both infant deaths and shorter lives.

But before we get too piously smug about America, just imagine a flood crashing through the Thames barrier and drowning London and Essex. What would we see? Essentially the same thing, even if mayor Ken Livingstone did evacuation well. The middle classes would escape to friends and relatives. The poor who have no networks beyond other poor people would collect in camps. They would be as pitifully helpless and there would be millions of them too. In New Orleans people couldn't get away for lack of the price of a taxi out of town. In London too, floods would expose what is hidden to well-off Britain because we also live strictly segregated lives. Housing-estate ghettoes are never entered by the 75% homeowners, places hidden even in the next street.

Poor London victims would also have nothing more than the clothes they stood in. Nationally 27% of people have no savings, not one penny; 25% of the poorest have at least £200 in debts, which would track them down to their refugee camps; 12% of households (many more individuals) have no bank account - even for those with basic accounts, banks never lend so much as a bus fare to those who most need it. A quarter of households have no insurance; they would lose everything.

Those with no debts could borrow up to £1,000 from the social fund, but it would be clawed back from their benefits within the year. With their jobs swept away, single adults would live on the jobseekers allowance of £56.20 a week (less £20 deducted for the social fund loan). For London the proportion reduced to penury would be far higher than national figures: half of London's children live under the poverty line.

So don't look across the Atlantic and preen over our European values, welfare state and beneficent government. We may do better, but the UN report puts us closer to the US model than to Europe's. How far we are from the best in Scandinavia, where economic success, social cohesion and fairer distribution bolster one another. As in every other economic forecast, the UN report finds no way we can reach the target of abolishing child poverty by 2020 on our present trajectory. It wouldn't require a cut - only to slow growth for the well-off while speeding it for the rest - to bring the share of wealth closer to the way we were before Mrs Thatcher. Katrina shows the other path.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005