Times are good, if poor are out of sight

April 08, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NEW YORK -- At Madison and 36th, an old woman in a porkpie hat and sneakers slips a paper cup into an open taxicab window to beg for money. The cabbie shoves the cup back at her. Doesn't the old lady understand modern economics? These are boom times. Let her make her money in the stock market, like everybody else.

Across Madison, people spend $7 a head to walk through the wondrous J. Pierpont Morgan library. Their voices are hushed, as though entering church. In fact, it's a holy place of American capitalism, a storehouse of one man's quest for every snatch of culture that money could buy him: works by Rembrandt and Rubens and Seurat; inscribed tablets from Mesopotamia; a handwritten score by Mozart; a first printing of the Declaration of Independence; a summary of the general theory of relativity in Albert Einstein's own hand.

For those who missed the story, Morgan had money even Bill Gates might envy. He was the financier who once bailed out Wall Street with a $25 million loan. The year was 1907. Back then, the average American worker made 22 cents an hour, and Morgan's $25 million was somewhat more than today's big league utility infielder makes.

This being the last gasp of the century Morgan helped juice, it's fascinating to visit the library and gaze at the remnants of his wealth. Did it matter to him that the working class was making pennies a day while he was spending $60 million in turn-of-the-century money -- on his art collection?

Today, the figures say, there's a greater gap between the moneyed class and the poor than ever before. But it's not just the super-rich like Morgan, or Gates. So many of us are doing so well, or imagining that we might, that the old woman with the paper cup at Madison and 36th has become merely a vague annoyance just off the coast of our awareness.

The stock market flirts with 10,000, so everybody dreams big. Unemployment's down, so everybody's got a sliver of the same dream. But there's a crazy sense of proportion in the numbers.

A quarter-century ago, the average corporate chairman out-earned his workers 40-to-1. Today, it's more than 200-to-1. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says millions of jobs are being created, but nearly half of them are nonskilled and low-paying. The biggest job growth: cashier.

The gap in wages between skilled and unskilled workers has widened dramatically. In the past 15 years, says the U.S. Labor Department, the median wages of high school graduates have dropped 6 percent, while the earnings of college grads have risen 12 percent.

A typical poor family pays an average 60 percent of its income on rent and utilities, twice what the government considers "affordable." In Maryland, a new study says, the poverty rate has worsened in the city -- and in 22 of 23 counties -- while the number of impoverished children has grown by more than a third in the past decade.

Here in Manhattan, times have never been so good. It's considered "reasonable" to find a hotel room for about $200 a night. Not including about $25 in parking fees, plus room tax, state tax and city tax. "The Lion King" is on Broadway, at $85 a ticket, and the house is packed every night. And, outside, the cops hustle away any undesirables trying to clean your windshield against your will.

All the newspapers here are filled with glorious predictions for the Yankees, whose payroll this year is roughly $85 million. The Yanks don't worry about money. They get $67 million a year in television rights alone.

In Baltimore, the Orioles' payroll is the second-biggest in baseball, but they do seem to worry. A year ago, their bloated salaries cost them nearly $1 million per victory. This year, the payroll's up to about $80 million.

Maybe they think they can make a few extra bucks on food and souvenirs. In previous years, independent vendors could hustle their wares just outside the park gates. On Opening Day, they'd all been pushed away from the ballpark.

A fellow named Charles Brown had to set up his stand at Pratt and Eutaw, a block away. He used to work near the statue of Babe Ruth but was told to move. He sells peanuts, pistachios and baseball caps to those approaching the park.

"On the peanuts," said Brown, sliding fresh ones into a paper bag, "I sell 'em for $1 and make 13 cents profit a bag. The pistachios, I make 40 cents for myself off of $2.50. The caps, I make $1.50 profit."

He is 68 years old, retired and disabled after years as a steel worker. On good nights, he says, he might clear $35 for himself. So Brown, and others like him, have to give the Orioles a little distance so as not to threaten the profit margin that exists after an $80 million payroll.

The country's in great shape but the proportions are getting dangerous. The old lady's shunned outside the great Morgan Library in New York. The peanut vendors have to keep their distance in Baltimore. Everybody watches the stock market and says, wow, we never had it so good.

Pub Date: 04/08/99

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