Americans expect Obama to deliver on income inequality
Obama plans to talk about ‘ladders of opportunity’ in his state of the union address. The vanishing middle class wants action
By Ana Marie Cox
Jan 28 2014
The good news is that President Obama has already partially succeeded in making income inequality the focus of his second term, and definitely his state of the union address. The bad news is that it may not make much of a difference to the people who have it the worst.
His strategically leaked decision to substitute the term “income inequality” with the more euphemistic “ladders of opportunity” has an any-publicity-is-good-publicity quality to it, of course, as Fox News and other conservative outlets/commentators have leapt upon the substitution as an example of Obama’s desperation and weaknesses (“shrinkage” in the provacative phrasing of conservative commentator George Will). They consider it a tacit symbol of the White House surrendering to a public that doesn’t really *want* to talk about income inequality.
But are a lot of poll results indicate that Obama is onto something. If there’s a critique to be had about the “pivot”, it’s not that he’s distracting the public from the administration’s other problems, it’s that his attention to income inequality has not matched the intensity with which Americans are now thinking about it. Gallup reports that 67% of those polled are dissatisfied (39% “very” dissatisfied) with the distribution of wealth in America and 45% are dissatisfied with “opportunities to get ahead by working hard” – both numbers the highest they’ve been in a decade. Pew tells us that a stunning 69% believe the government should do something about the divide – and 43% say that it should “a lot” of something.
It is true that the massive and growing gap between the rich and poor is not ordinarily a topic of polite (or cable news) conversation. Fox News’ recent batch genuous polling took advantage of our societal reticence on the subject. Their poll asked “How do you feel about the fact that some people make a lot more money than others?”. Not surprisingly, they found 62% said, “I’m okay with it – that’s how our economy works” and another 21% responded, “It stinks, but the government should not get involved.”
“Some people make a lot more money than others” is hardly the problem, both in the sense that the question does not address the scope of “a lot more” nor it does not define what it means to “make” it. Most (53%) of the income “earned” – one has to use the term somewhat loosely here – by the top .1% richest Americans is not salary for job, but the product of money being made out of money.
The Fox poll does get to one honest premise: up to a point, we take inequality for granted. Indeed, Americans are more sanguine about capitalism’s separation of winners and losers than the rest of the world. When asked about it a source of national concern (as opposed to general dissatisfaction) just 47% of Americans say it’s a problem. Ironically, we consider it less of a problem than the people of other economically-developed countries do – even though we’re the ones with the most alarming disparity. The income ratio of our rich to poor is 16.7%, more than double that of the next most divided country (Spain, at 6.8, where, justifiably, 75% say it’s a problem), yet the only country less concerned with income inequality is Australia (33%), whose income ratio is a mere 2.7.
The degree to which Americans are “OK” with income inequality probably depends on their experience with it. Historically, Americans are in denialabout both what class they belong to and the differences between the classes: income distribution is about twice as unequal as poll respondents say they think it is.
But reality is sinking in. Americans are starting to discover that they themselves, or a friend or a loved one, has been pushed into the social safety net we used to think was there for someone else. Food stamps, once a symbol of desperate neediness allotted to those unable to fend for themselves, now assist a record number of Americans (1 in 7) – and a majority of them are working-age adults. Twenty-eight percent have at least some college education. Foreclosures and unemployment have turned people who had been solidly middle class into sudden homelessness. In the last decade, wages havestagnated for white-collar, college-educated workers at the same rate as blue-collar workers. In fact, fewer Americans than ever now identify (down to 44% from 53% in 2008) as middle class. Self-identification is catching up with reality.
People understand that the economy has not tanked so much as split in two, with the rich scuttled to the security of lifeboats, likely to be rescued, while the poor and middle class cling to the wreckage. If we’re going to go with historical analogies for the current crisis, the Titanic is a lot more fitting than the offensive over-reach to Kristalnacht made by venture capitalist Tom Perkins in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend:
Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’
At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall astutely observes that Perkins’ grating folly stems from a combination of “socionomic acrophobia” (a “gulf of estrangement of and alienation”) and paranoia. Indeed, the very rich cannot seem to take their attention off their bank acounts long enough to notice that the class struggle is not about them, it’s about *being poor.* Or being just a few rungs of the ladder away from it.
Americans expect Obama to deliver on income inequality