Last week, The New York Times published a report which found that the United States no longer holds the distinction of having the world’s wealthiest middle class. Long has this nation prided itself on being the land of opportunity, and that opportunity has long been synonymous with a wealthy middle class. All is not lost however, the article does state that if anyone is financially well off — above the median income range — then they are in a group that surpasses their peers worldwide. While this is good for those people, this faltering wealth for all those below the 50 percent income range in America means that their lives are becoming harder, not easier, as our economy grows.
The turn of the 20th century the United States was in a period widely recognized as the Gilded Age. The time period bears this name because, while on the surface it appeared that America was prosperous, if one dug too deep and peeled back the layer of gold on top, they would find that America was actually a land of extreme income inequality. Sound familiar? It should, because today the gap between the richest 1 percent of Americans and everyone else is the biggest it has been since the 1920s. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the 1920s were followed by the Great Depression.
Between 1979 and 2007, earnings for the top 1 percent of Americans exploded by 275 percent, while earnings for 60 percent of Americans, the ones in median income brackets (the middle class) increased by only 40 percent during the same time period. These numbers do not mention the poorest of Americans, who have been effectively stuck in a stagnating wage spiral for decades. This incredible wage disparity is exemplified further when compared to other nations. The gini rating (which measures income inequality around the world) of the United States is incredibly poor. According to the United Nations, the U.S. ranks 77th out of 146 nations on the gini scale. The United States should not rank out of the top 5 when measuring any sort of positive aspect of society. To rank 77th in the world in income equality is a great transgression against the integrity of our nation.
Compounding the problem of our faltering middle class is that many Americans do not believe there is actually a problem. The continued insistence of a certain political party to promote economic ideas that echo “trickle down” monetary policies is further exacerbating the problem, because not only will they not support programs to shrink income disparity, many of them deny the problem exists, insofar as according to them it is actually a problem.
The challenge of bringing income equality to a reasonable level has been defined by people from the President to the Pope as the great challenge of our time. It will not be easy, because the very rich stand to lose something, and they have great power in the policy making of our democracy. But, this does not mean there is no hope.
Immediately, Congress can raise the national minimum wage to at least $10.10 an hour. Doing so has broad support nationwide, with over 70 percent of Americans and many economic think tanks supporting such action. While it would not greatly alter the income gap, increasing the minimum wage would show that the government is taking this problem seriously and is prepared to act on it, since the private sector will not. Another potential solution would be to enact a more progressive tax system. While simply taxing the rich is not a complete fix all, it would help, as our tax system has been less progressive since the Reagan administration. For those that argue one should not be penalized for being wealthy and successful, they are correct. But the current tax system in America is completely inadequate and many times gives the wealthy tax breaks. Clearly from the income changes previously demonstrated, the very well off do not need any more government help.
America has long prided itself on having a robust middle class that shaped the identity of the country. Currently Canada now has superseded us southerners in having the greatest median income in the world. Is this only a step in the system of a crumbling American wealth distribution system? Or will it serve as a jolt to the people in Congress and on the streets to take action, in order to avoid a complete social breakdown of our values and traditions? For the sake of our future, the latter must be made true.
Res Stecker is hoping to see a day in which America can be great once again. Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.