Time to Act on Inequality

Time to Act on Inequality

As the gap between rich and poor widens, Americans await reforms to improve the well-being of all.

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In newsrooms, a favorite excuse used by reporters and editors to kill a story is to say, “We already had that.” Why waste space on old news? Readers already know that income inequality is growing ferociously in America. Some indefatigable reporters, however, bull their way past the objections. David Cay Johnston of the New York Times recently came up with new facts that make the familiar old story shocking again. The top 1 percent of Americans are now getting the largest share of national income since 1928. And a mere 300,000 are now getting almost the same income as 150 million others on the bottom of the wage ladder.

The wage gap has nearly doubled since 1980, the dawn of the conservative era. The deterioration of equitable income in American society is not over. It continues to get much worse. The top 10 percent–the people earning roughly $100,000 a year and higher–now get 48.5 percent of total income. Not surprisingly, average incomes for the bottom 90 percent are down slightly. These numbers are from the Internal Revenue Service for 2005, and experts agree they understate the disparities.

This country is already in the thick of another presidential election, and we need to learn more. Might we hear the candidates address this national scandal and say concretely what they intend to do about it? Republicans, we know, will duck and dodge. But Democratic hopefuls are not exactly speaking out on inequality either. John Edwards is an admirable exception; he has declared unilaterally that income inequality is no longer a taboo subject.

Voters understand what’s happening and they are overwhelmingly distressed, as the Pew Research Center’s recent comprehensive polling confirmed. Some 73 percent of Americans agree with this statement: “Today it’s really true that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.” More striking is the fact that two-thirds of affluent families (incomes of $75,000 and higher) agree.

The public has shifted its political attitudes significantly, according to Pew, returning to the sense of connectedness that prevailed before it was weakened by many years of conservative ideology. If you ask now whether government has obligations to take care of people who can’t care for themselves, 69 percent agree, up from 57 percent at the low point of 1994, when Republicans captured Congress. These social sensibilities are doubtless related to what people feel in their own lives. Some 44 percent say they “don’t have enough money to make ends meet.” That is, nearly half the country feels financially troubled.

Put aside economic theory and income statistics. Inequality has a human face, and its expression is one of stressful anxiety. In a survey last fall, Lake Research Partners asked nonsupervisory workers (who make up about 80 percent of the workforce) what worries them most in everyday life. Not being able to afford healthcare when you or your family needs it: 77 percent. Not having enough money for retirement: 77 percent. Losing your job and not being able to find one with the same pay and benefits: 65 percent. Having your standard of living slip further: 68 percent. Losing your home or never owning a home: 59 percent. (For a more intimate portrait of how inequality devours the social fabric, read Eyal Press in this issue on poverty’s move to the suburbs.)

The Democrats in Congress have taken modest but valuable first steps toward reversing wage inequality and economic fears by introducing legislation to raise the minimum wage and make it easier to form a union. Americans are clearly ready for larger and more fundamental responses, everything from progressive tax reform to national industrial policy on trade and aggressive public investment in people’s security. Only with big changes can we hope to achieve a society distinguished not by the number of millionaires but by the rising level of well-being of all its citizens.

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