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It’s Class, Stupid! | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

It’s Class, Stupid!

In recent weeks, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have run a series of articles about issues of class and inequality in America.

These two media pillars have comprehensively taken on the root myth of the American way, reporting facts that are so stark and clear that they can no longer be ignored. The gap between rich and poor is widening dramatically; There's been a startling lack of upward mobility over the last three decades; And Americans face no better odds today that they will climb the ladder to a higher economic rung where their parents stood than they did 35 years ago.

As Sylvia Allegretto wrote in the Economic Policy Institute's "The State of Working America 2004/2005," which she co-authored: "The costs of basic necessities like health care, housing, and college keep rising, and many working families' incomes are not keeping pace."

Moreover, as the New York Times recently editorialized, education in this country is "heavily dependent on wealth and class"; and the richer people become, the greater their odds that they will live longer as beneficiaries of the best health care money can buy. All in all, a bleak picture, but one that the media is only slowly starting to grapple with.

As Paul Krugman noted, commenting on his paper's series in his column, "Since 1980 in particular, US government policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of working families--and under the current administration, that favoritism has become extreme and relentless." Conservative economic policies are fueling this phenomenon of an increasingly stratified America. Republicans refuse to raise the minimum wage, which has remained stuck at a paltry $5.15 an hour since 1997. Bankruptcy "reform" savages the working class. Meanwhile, Bush's tax cuts handed a tax reduction of more than $4,500 to the top fifth of income-earners while those in the lowest quintile received an average of only $98 annually off their tax bills.

Another fine series of stories--in the Los Angeles Times--pointed out that policies like deregulating industries, coupled with a right-wing assault on social programs have eroded Americans' safety net and shifted "economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families." (The reporter Peter Gosselin received a 2005 Sidney Hillman Award for journalism reporting for this series. Disclosure: I served on the panel of judges. And there were other fine articles submitted on this crucial issue, including a fine series in the Detroit News documenting how Bush tax cuts badly hurt the poor.)

There's a good resource called Toomuchonline.org that I recommend to reporters and anybody else interested in a reality check on America's economy. Sam Pizzigati, a veteran labor journalist, runs and edits the site, which is chock full of useful information. The site has a simple message; it argues that "our society would be considerably more democratic, prosperous and caring if we narrowed the vast gap between the very wealthy and everyone else."

To promote this vision, Pizzigati highlights the gap between the rich and the poor, sheds light on the excesses of the super-wealthy, advocates a "maximum wage" that would cap excessive income and wealth and applauds public and private-sector efforts to reduce inequality and make America a more equitable nation.

The kinds of reforms Pizzigati wants to see enacted are also on display at Toomuchonline.org. Pizzigati praises former SEC chairman Richard Breeden, who proposed a plan that said MCI, which rose out of the ashes of WorldCom's collapse, should prevent a repeat of WorldCom's train wreck by banning executive stock options and capping total CEO compensation. And then there's Congressman Martin Sabo's proposal to ban corporate tax deductions for executive compensation that exceeds more than 25 times what the lowest-paid worker at the company earns.

While Pizzigati commends the Times and the Journal's series on social mobility as "a mainstream media watershed," he also argues that a lot of work remains to be done. The Times, he says, for instance, ignored "inequality's impact on our social health"--i.e. how vastly unequal societies have negative health consequences for all people, not just for the poorest sectors of society.

As Vermont Senate candidate Bernie Sanders says, the corporate-owned media tend to ignore the economic problems that face millions of people on a daily basis. The press doesn't cover, he argues, things like the fact that Americans are "working longer hours for lower wages," living standards have declined, and "we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on earth…[and] we are the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system." One result of people not seeing their lives reflected in the media, Sanders argues, is that they think their problems are unique to them, and are not social or political problems that we as a nation can solve by working together.

I believe there's a constituency and an appetite for more stories about class lines in America. Readers want to see their lives and problems treated in our media. There may also be an appetite for real "reality shows." A new FX show, 30 Days, hosted by Supersize Me author Morgan Spurlock premiers this week and could generate a new trend. In the show's first episode, Spurlock and his girlfriend go to Columbus, Ohio and try to live on a minimum-wage income--raising issues of class that we rarely see on our TV sets.

In April 2004, I argued in this space that attention must be paid to those being left behind. More than a year later, the LA Times, the New York Times and the Journal's good series on class are steps in the right direction. Let's hope that these articles (and even that FX show) are just the beginning of a national effort on the media's part to show how people are living in these times. Here's a motto the media should adopt: It's Class, Stupid!

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