Income Inequality – Saigon Style

This woman didn’t want me to take her picture, so I snapped a quickie as I was walking away. What you can’t see is a pile of sorted cardboard, soda cans, water bottles, plastic bags, and styrofoam – her “products.”

This is private enterprise in Vietnam. Each morning this woman and others like her hit the streets of Saigon with their two wheeled carts looking for anything they think can be reused or recycled. In the afternoon, with her cart overflowing, this lady stakes out a piece of sidewalk near our apartment and begins breaking down boxes, sorting, and stacking the assortment of things she has collected. When she is finished with that task she neatly loads the cart and pushes off down the street. I don’t know where she unloads and I don’t know who buys the products but every afternoon she is there, kneeling on the sidewalk, sorting a fresh accumulation of items gleaned from street side trash containers. Her civil service counterpart is a corps of orange suited women who patrol the same streets with large orange carts picking up street side garbage in plastic bags from neighborhood door steps. Everything that can be recycled is separated out and given a new life.

I don’t have hard data but I doubt that the trash/recycle woman makes more than $1 a day for her labor. I guess this is what American conservatives have in mind when they talk about dismantling Social Security, getting people off the dole, and exhorting the poor to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In Vietnam there is no safety net. The family is their Social Security system and if there is no family there is no safety net. Men and women in Vietnam work until they no longer can. There is no expectation that at a certain age they won’t have to work. They know that at some point they won’t be able to and that is the age of retirement. Meanwhile, the streets are increasingly full of Mercedes, BMW’s, Audi’s, and Porsches. The wealthy in Vietnam are showy. The streets are so clogged that cars can rarely exceed 20 mph, but sleek, fast, luxury cars are everywhere and the people inside are wearing Gucci, Versace, and Jimmy Choo. There is a small emerging middle class in Vietnam, but the most noticeable change in recent years is how fast some people are getting wealthy while the poor continue to struggle.

Occupy Wall Street seems to be fizzling in the US but I think the point has been made. A society that tolerates huge disparities in wealth is an unhealthy one. The family may be a healthier safety net than programs like Social Security, but there must be a middle ground when the rich are increasingly self indulgent and the elderly are homeless and hungry.

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