A journalist friend complained that she couldn’t get any writing done because her two-year old son was distracting. She has a nanny and I asked her how she thought the nanny, who had a little girl of the same age, was faring. Five days a week, the nanny came to my friend’s apartment shortly after breakfast and stayed until just before dinner, leaving her own child somewhere with someone—who knew where? certainly my friend didn’t– so that she could earn a living. My friend, a thoughtful woman most of the time, said she hadn’t considered this.
Too many Americans fit into my friend’s position in their relationships with the poor, the working poor and those that barely make it into the middle class. They’re not unfeeling people, they’re just not thinking about those Americans or situations that don’t affect them. They’ve been encouraged in this dissociation by a society – and media—that celebrates successful entrepreneurs, internet gurus, Wall Street billionaires, sports figures and faux reality. Those who succeed tend to credit themselves a success narrative about their success. Or they may also just be whistling past the graveyard, thankful for their own financial security, and fearful that any acknowledgement of poverty will splash back on them.
Yet as we head into 2014, the continued growth of income inequality among Americans is, as Robert Shiller, the Yale professor who shared this year’s Nobel prize for economics, warned: “The most important problem that we are facing now today.”
Income inequality. Not glitches in the Affordable Care Act, not our love affair with 250 million guns, not sequestration and the dysfunctional disconnect between political parties in Washington, but income inequality.
Certainly, the wide reach of the economic downturn- has created more sympathy for the poor than in more affluent times. Back in 2001, for example, a National Public Radio poll found that half of those surveyed thought that the poor were poor because they hadn’t worked hard enough to pull themselves out of poverty. Today, there is a bit more understanding since a greater percentage of the population has lost a job and can’t find another no matter how hard it has tried. More than 60 percent of Americans believe that the economic system favors the wealthy, still less than half attribute the yawning gap between the rich and the poor to a problem of economic structure.
But it is a problem. In 2010, the number of people living in poverty in the US was at an all -time high—with numbers not seen since the late 1950s. The U.S. has been on fallow ground since the housing bubble burst, but the poor have been on neglected soil for nearly 50 decades.
Here is Barbara Ehrenreich on the poverty of millions in her provocative, controversial 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, her investigation into post 1996 welfare reform and its societal impact:
The “working poor”… are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.
In contrast to these anonymous donors and nameless benefactors, the top one percent of Americans — those with incomes of more than $350,000 — now receive the largest share of national income since the year before the Great Depression plunged the country into an economic tailspin that left one-third of the population jobless.
Certainly, deep recessions worsen long-term unemployment and income inequality, but they are also the result of structural problems. The programs of the New Deal brought relief, recovery and reform and softened the situation for the unemployed, but it wasn’t until the U.S. entry into World War II with its drafting of millions into the military, the hiring of women and minorities and factories producing war materials that the economy fully recovered. Today, the collateral consequences of income inequality –and growing poverty –in a global economy stretches into the U.S. future in the form of inequality of opportunity for millions of Americans.
“The opportunity gap in America,” President Obama said in his December economic speech, “ is now as much about class as it is about race. And that gap is growing. So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern.”
Income and opportunity inequality are very real obstacles for a democratic society.
Too much social stratification undermines democracy. One has only to look at emerging nations –like China and India –to see that the mammoth chasm between rich and poor divides rather than unites a people. This is most evident in the U.S. in the relationship between income and political influence: Wealth doesn’t always make a winner, but wealth ensures that the concerns of the wealthy are heard.
Americans esteem freedom but the options for freedom of the poor are severely limited by lack of basics—decent housing, adequate healthcare, safe neighborhoods, good education, financial security.
Years ago, Dolly Shiff, the executive editor of The New York Post, assigned an Italian-American reporter to do an article on how earlier immigrants, like Italians, had managed to succeed without having to be schooled in Italian. At the time, some in New York City’s Latino community were demanding that their Spanish-speaking children have some classes, such as math, in Spanish.
Shiff, steeped in our Horatio Alger culture, was sure that the numerous individuals who escaped lives of poverty and disadvantage to become wealthy got there through hard work, talent and tenacity.
And the resulting article acknowledged that, yes, many Italian immigrants succeeded in the U.S., but many more had not, including the reporter’s brilliant uncle, who never learned enough English to prosper.
And while it is true that ultimately each American is responsible for his or her circumstances, without our collective concern and awareness of the nation’s growing poverty gap, nothing will change. We will we can see our own security in the security of other Americans, we will continue to have an increasing number of poor Americans—Americans who are poor through no fault of their own.
Karen DeWitt has a long distinguished career as a journalist, covering politics, but also has worked on political campaigns. She compares the later to the labor of a Hebrew working for the Pharaoh. She’s covered the White House and the national politics for The New York Times; foreign affairs and the White House for USA TODAY before joining that newspaper’s management as an assistant managing editor. She switched to television as a senior producer for ABC’s Nightline, where she wrote and produced the award-winning, Found Voices about the digitization of 1930s and 1940s interviews with former slaves. She returned to newspapers, as Washington editor for the Examiner newspaper and eventually left to help on local political campaigns. She has several blogs, but contributes mostly to a food blog called “I don’t speak cuisine” at peacecorpsworldwide.org and theroot.com.