It is an existential reality that impacts the lives of tens of millions of Americans.
It impacts how we live and even how long we live. It affects education, the length and depth of poverty in our nation, our ability to rise and make a new life for ourselves. Structural inequality means that public policies are made to benefit a very few instead of the mass of Americans. Despite vaunted myths about our democracy, average Americans have little or no influence on political decisions in the United States.
We need to start with a few simple facts.
University of California economist Emmanuel Saez has been tracking the extent of inequality in America for several decades. His most recent findings are that 1% of Americans control 42% of our assets- and the situation is getting worse. Nearly all of the new wealth created during the recent economic recovery is going to the already rich and powerful.
Meanwhile, 46 million Americans live in poverty, an additional 50 million are near poor, and 22% of our children are in poverty.
Even as corporate executives have made record profits in the last three decades while paying lower taxes than ever in our history, American workers have experienced totally flat wages. Economists offer several explanations for this: globalization, the rise of technology, and an alleged lack of increased productivity. However, executives have seen their salaries rise literally 100’s of times.
And the Dow Jones has gone from 10,000 to 18,000.
Why hasn’t any of this increased prosperity gone to American workers?
The answer is actually simple. Corporations have elbowed working Americans out of their rightful share of our national prosperity simply because they could. The unions have grown weak, tax laws have given companies the power to outsource jobs with impunity, and both political parties are dependent on corporate political money rather than contributions from workers or unions.
A Princeton University study concluded in 2014 a multi-year study examining which income groups were most successful in having the legislation they favored passed by the Congress. The final take of the scholars was that America is no longer a democracy. We are purely and simply an oligarchy.
This political power gives the oligarchy the opportunity to promote legislation that gives it even more wealth and that increases inequality in America. These policies include favorable trade and tax legislation such as the carried interest loophole and anti-worker laws such as the so-called “Right to Work” statutes.
In his 2012 book, The Measure of a Nation, Howard Steven Friedman analyzes the statistical data of 14 large wealthy nations. He notes that since the 1980s, income inequality has increased more in America than in any other country in the study. Our rate of social spending, Friedman says, is less than that of any of the other nations except North Korea. Our record of actual tax collection is dead last.
A former health economist for the United Nations, Friedman reports that America is last in life expectancy among the 14 nations which include Australia, Greece, and Portugal. The New York Times reported this year that life span for a man in the top 10% of the economic ladder is now 87 years –for a person in the bottom 10%, it drops to 74 years.
Other studies this year show increased death rates starting in the 1990s for middle aged white males and women with high school education. It was of course in this period that economic stresses and wage stagnation began to strongly affect American workers. Nobel Economics Laureate Angus Deaton attributed the increased death rates to added stress from job and financial insecurity. Harvard professor Robert Putnam cited the relationship of poverty, hopelessness, and health.
The impact of inequality on health and political influence are the most dramatic examples of how inequality affects Americans on virtually a daily basis. But there are other examples.
Friedman, for instance, notes the particularly low scores by American students in low income schools. This is hardly surprising. These schools do not have the educational resources and parents oftentimes cannot help their children because they are working several low paid jobs. Jared Bernstein, Vice President Biden’s former economic adviser, notes that inequality increases “residential segregation by income.”
All meaning that low income students start with disadvantages which are then intensified by other factors.
Various studies also show that the United States has very low mobility as compared with European nations. This is a particularly important point in that many conservatives such as Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and others contend that inequality is not as important as mobility. ‘As long as we have mobility, we are ok,’ they argue. But as the studies show, we don’t have mobility. Bernstein contends that “attacking immobility means attacking inequality. To pretend otherwise will only preserve the unfairness that’s at the heart of the American economy today.”
Even while praising mobility, right wing policy makers continue to push for more tax cuts for the wealthy. These are in effect paid for by cuts in health and food programs for America’s students. It is just such programs of course which are the basis of successful mobility in any nation.
Unfortunately, the power of those at the top of the economic tier in America does not depend on logic or facts. It depends on the influence of money in our political system, which will continue to skewer the American Dream for tens of millions of our citizens until we finally stand up and say “enough is enough!”