In a post earlier this week, I noted that my sociology students are consistently more concerned about the fictional rise in teen delinquency and the fictional rise in divorce than the actual rise in economic inequality in America. Then, yesterday I came across a couple of striking illustrations of just how bad things are getting. In the Daily Planet, Mary Turck republished a PBS chart comparing the American wealth distribution (Country C) to that of Sweden (Country B) and a fictional utopia (Country A).
And in a searing Daily Show clip, Jon Stewart demonstrates the absurdity of Republican demands that the lowest-earning half of Americans—who currently pay no income taxes, though they do pay excise and Medicare and payroll taxes—put, in the words of one Fox News host, “skin in the game.” As Stewart points out, the least wealthy half of Americans have so few assets that to equal the $700 billion revenue that would be generated over the next decade by allowing George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 2-3% of Americans to expire, the poorest half of Americans would have to be stripped of fully half of everything they own.
I don’t spend a lot of time paying attention to politics, because I have more important things to worry about—like whether or not that was actually piss in the jar thrown at indie rockers MGMT last year. Anyway, political winds change, and the economy goes through cycles. Things get worse, and then things get better. But this isn’t a fleeting problem, or one limited to the current recession. If you’re 40 or younger, income inequality in the United States has been growing for your entire life. And still, people look at that Pac-Man chart above and seriously say, you know, that’s not skewed enough. Let’s take that half of America that has so few assets that they barely even show up on a pie chart, and get them to “put a skin in the game.”
Why aren’t my students worried about this? At my college students are largely studying for associate’s degrees to get jobs as cops or preschool teachers; and are currently working at jobs that don’t demand specialized training, hence jobs that pay very little. Many of them, no doubt, are in that increasingly squeezed sliver. I don’t think they’d be in favor of raising their own taxes, but many of them are glad to celebrate the rollback of social welfare programs that form a safety net for low-income Americans.
Why? They cite abuses they’ve seen among their friends and family, people who in their judgment don’t work hard enough yet reap the fruits of government “handouts.” We’re working hard to take care of our families, my students say. We’re working full-time jobs and going to school. Go ahead and pull the rug out from under my freeloading cousin.
This isn’t how all of my students feel—probably not even the majority of them. But a lot of them do, and there you have it: a working-class and middle-class Tea Party base that, combined with the pressures brought to bear by the wealthy who have an obvious stake in perpetuating economic inequality, is preventing liberals like President Obama and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton from raising taxes—even simply rolling back recent tax cuts implemented by Republicans George W. Bush and Tim Pawlenty, respectively. So the rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer.
I’m a sociologist, not an economist—but 71% of economists believe that the distribution of income in the U.S. should be more equal. Money is the lifeblood of a capitalist economy, and if the blood is all flowing to the head (or, as the case may be, the ass), that can’t be good. Our economy can only remain stable for so long when a huge proportion of workers are living close to the edge, maybe as close as being a paycheck away from being on the street.
Maybe this situation will change as the vice really starts to squeeze the middle class, as health care becomes a luxury and family vacations become infeasible. Or maybe the country will fall into another recession—maybe even a depression—and it will become clear that radical change is necessary. But wouldn’t it be nice if, before that happens, we all just started to give a damn?