Economic inequality and the Buffalo region: Dr. Steve Fraser on the populous perspective

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By Jacob Schamel
Griffin Reporter

Dr. Steve Fraser lecture  on “Why Americans Once Stood up to Organized Wealth and Power and No Longer Do” intrigued students, faculty and community guests, making up an audience much larger than facilities originally expected. This semester’s bi-annual Fitzpatrick Institute lecureur was animated, as he dressed-down the state of income inequality, exposing the economic obstacles faced by the majority of Americans.

The message that Dr. Fraser delivered over the course of 50 minutes was a timely one for both Buffalo and the United States.  After a brief quip about how he would rather be watching his beloved Mets rather than giving a lecture, Dr. Fraser jumped right into an engaging lecture as he posed to the audience the question: why do people put up with what they do for as long as they do?

His question targeted the passive nature of society today towards wealth and power by asking people to look to the past to turn up some explanation of why this is the case.  In search of the answer, he extensively discussed America’s Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and what he called the “extravagant if not vulgar displays of wealth” and “darwinian ruthlessness” of the time.  These patterns he believes, as do many Americans, have emerged again in the last few decades.   

Dr. Fraser pointed out though that there exists a stark contrast between then and now.  Back then people organized, protested and unionized against what they believed was an unfair and unjust system. While we all remember the brief Occupy movement that began in the fall of 2011, this was nothing more than a brief flash of discontent compared to the scale and endurance of the labor, reform, and civil rights movements of the Gilded Age.  

He said, “America is a developed country with growing un-development.”  He cited the flight of industry and jobs to foreign shores as reasons for this, acknowledging  Buffalo as an excellent example of the how the “industrial core was hollowed out at the hands of the financial sector.”

Buffalo has seen much better days, but once again is on the rise.  Large parts of the city have yet to feel this rebound though as abandoned industrial sites and vacant homes continue to drive down property values. The average price of a house in the City of Buffalo according census.gov is only $66,600 compared to that of $288,000 for New York State as a whole.  There are very few other places in the world where you can purchase a nearly 7,000 square foot home for only $1.3 million, which is the current asking price for a house in the Delaware Park District.  

The houses that line these streets around the park were once the homes of many of the men who built America into the industrial center of the world in the Gilded Age.  At one point in the early 20th century, Buffalo was known as the city of millionaires as it had highest concentration of them of any city in America.  But many of them and the heirs abandoned this city to rust in the mid 20th century.

Now Buffalo is largely a low-income city where the mean household income for the city is only just over $30,000. When compared to the average for the whole state of $58,000, it reveals how truly impoverished this city has remained.

Dr. Fraser’s message to the crowd about this was that if anything is going to change it has to be the people who stand up and fight for that change. Compared to one hundred years, society today has acquiesced and for decades not challenged the decline of the system. The one notable exception that he acknowledged has been the rise to the front of the national discussion of Bernie Sanders. “One year ago,” he said, “It was beyond my immigration to have predicted the rise of Sanders.”  

Maybe America is waking up again.  The anti-establishment movement on either side of the aisle with the campaigns of Trump and Sanders suggests that Americans might have finally had enough.  It will remain to be seen though if we are willing to fight against a system that is deeply flawed and has created a system that Dr. Fraser said our ancestors were not afraid to call wage slavery.

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