"After 30-Year Run, Rise of the Super-Rich Hits a Sobering Wall." So declared a headline in the New York Times in August 2009, documenting the declining number of Americans with a net worth of $30 million and predicting that the Great Recession would reduce the staggering level of inequality in the United States. As our symposium suggests, the truly sobering news lies elsewhere. It is not multimillionaires who have been hit hardest in the recent economic downturn. As Katherine Newman and David Pedulla show , it's African-Americans, low-skilled workers and a generation of young people at risk of being permanently scarred. The downwardly mobile Americans who should most concern us are not traders on Wall Street, which managed to pay its employees $145 billion in 2009. They are the children of black middle-class parents who, as Orlando Patterson notes , are losing ground in a nation where segregation in housing and education is once again on the rise.
Although they differ in theme and emphasis, the essays here, commissioned in conjunction with the Next Social Contract Initiative of the New America Foundation, are united by a belief that deep, persistent inequality doesn't merely affect less privileged Americans. It affects everyone, rending the social fabric, distorting our politics and preventing America from fulfilling its promise as a nation that offers a measure of equality and opportunity to all. Inequality is also a bipartisan phenomenon, exacerbated by the neglect of both political parties and by a society whose chattering classes have grown oblivious to wealth and income disparities that no other advanced democracy tolerates.
Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama appears aware of these disparities, telling Times reporter David Leonhardt last year that prosperity must be spread "across the spectrum of regions and occupations and genders and races." Thus far, however, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has generated far more populist rage than ambitious initiatives to make ours a more just and equal society. As the essays in these pages indicate, the urgency to reverse inequality is clear. The question is whether the political will exists to do so.
In This Forum
Robert Reich, "Unjust Spoils "
Dean Baker, "The Right Prescription for an Ailing Economy "
Katherine Newman and David Pedulla, "An Unequal-Opportunity Recession "
Orlando Patterson, "For African-Americans, A Virtual Depression—Why? "
Jeff Madrick, "American Incomes: Soaring or Static "
Matt Yglesias, "A Great Time to Be Alive? "