America is the land of dreams. The United States is lauded as the land of opportunity, the place where anyone can go from humble beginnings and become a millionaire. It is the tale of rags to riches, of the Horatio Alger story, of a nation where we can rise as far as our talent takes us. Yet dreams die hard. The reality is that America is a nation of increasing poverty, economic inequality, and decreased social mobility; at least according to a series of recent studies and reports documenting the economic woes of the United States.
The first study is from the United States Census Bureau in 2010 describing poverty and income in America. In 2010 the richest five percent of the population accounted for 21% of the income, with the top 20% receiving over 50% of the total income in the country. This compares to the bottom quintile accounting for about 3% of the total income.
A second study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 2010, drawing upon Congressional Budget Office research, found that income gap between the top one-percent of the population and everyone else more than tripled since 1973. After-tax income for the top one-percent increased by 281% between 1973 and 2007, while for middle class or middle quintile it increased by 25%, for the bottom quintile it was merely 16%. Looking beyond income to wealth, the maldistribution has not been this bad since the 1920s. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2007 the top one-percent controls almost 34% of the wealth in the country, with half of the population possessing less than 3%. The racial disparities for wealth mirror those of income. Since 2007 the wealth gap has increased as the value of American homes–the single largest source of wealth for most Americans– has eroded. Studies such as the Survey of Consumer Finances by the Federal Reserve Board have similarly concluded that the wealth gap has increased since the 1980s.
But Americans dream and believe they can rise to the top–get lucky, be the Horatio Alger rags to riches story; thus our fascination with buying lottery tickets. Yet social mobility in America has ground to a halt. A 2010 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that social mobility in the United States ranked far below that of many other developed countries. Nearly half of the economic advantage parents have in the United States is transmitted to their children; a number nearly two-and-one-half times that of Australia and Canada. The biggest cause of social immobility according to the report is declining educational opportunities for many students. Other studies, including those in 2005 and 2010 in the Economist similarly point to declining social mobility in the United States that makes it difficult for individuals to rise from one social economic status to a better one. In fact, there is better than a 95% chance that children will not improve their social economic status in comparison to their parents. Few really can move on up.
Conversely poverty in America has increased. In FDR’s second inaugural speech in 1936 he spoke of a nation that was one-third ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-fed. In the 1950s due in part to the New Deal anti-poverty programs, the poverty rate fell to 22%, with over 39 million poor persons living at or below poverty level. By 1969 Great Society programs reduced the poverty rate to 12.1%, with a further decline to in 1973 where the poverty rate was 11.1%, representing 23 million.
Yet after that, and especially beginning with the Reagan era’s retrenchment on social welfare programs, the poverty rate has continued to climb. In 1983, the poverty rate was 15.2%, in 1992, the rate was 14.5%, representing 36.8 million, and in 2003, 12.5%, representing 35.9 million. Moreover, in 1992, the poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 48.3%, and 21.9% under the age of 18 were in poverty (14.6 million children). In 2009, 14.3%, or nearly 40 million in poverty, and now the latest Census figures point to a poverty rate in 2010 of 15.1%, representing a record 46 million in poverty. The numbers are equally grim when one looks at women, children, and people of color in poverty–all record or near record numbers.
One could recount in even more detail the picture of an America with growing class differences that are fixed. We live in a world where there are clear rich and poor, with the income and wealth differences played out in terms of racial and gender disparities. We live in a nation where the privileged few go to better schools, live in safer neighborhoods, have better access to medical care, and therefore are healthier and live longer. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once stated in his play The Rich Boy: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Yes they are–they are privileged.
Many reasons explain the growing gap between the rich and poor and America. But at the core one can point to the emasculation of the New Deal and Great Society programs that once provided income transfers to the poor. There is the dramatic cuts on effective tax rates in America that prior to the 1980s were 70% but now are less than half that such that the poor and middle class, as Warren Buffet pointed out, pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes than he does. Similar tax cuts have been gifted to corporations. As a result, the rich are asked o contribute less to society and economic inequalities that exist are not offset by tax policies and income transfers.
Moreover the war on organized labor has had its toll. Unions from the 1930s until the 1980s had a significant impact on increasing wages, benefits, and the quality of life for America. But first beginning with Reagan’s firing of the PATCO air controllers in 1981 and continuing to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s assault on public employees this year, unions have come to be depicted as the new welfare queens in America, blamed for declining American competitiveness and budget deficits. Never mind that successful nations such as Germany pay higher wages and benefits, many believe that the only way to future prosperity in this country lies with immiserizating the American worker.
A couple of weeks ago Republicans lambasted President Obama’s call for tax increases on the wealthy as class warfare. The Republicans deserve credit–at least they recognize that there are class differences in America and that a war exists. However, only one class is fighting–the corporate rich–while the rest society sits idly by immobilized.
Note: This piece appeared in Politics in Minnesota, Capitol Report,September 29, 2011.