Income inequality: Why does the gap keep widening?

Income inequality has suddenly become “part of the mainstream kitchen-table debate” in America.

Perhaps it’s the strong rhetoric of Pope Francis and President Obama, or the growing sense that the economic recovery is leaving the poor and the middle class behind. But income inequality—an issue that once preoccupied liberal policy wonks and scruffy Occupy Wall Street activists—has suddenly become “part of the mainstream kitchen-table debate” in America, said Michael Hiltzik in A startling new Gallup poll finds fully two thirds of adults either somewhat or very dissatisfied with the distribution of wealth in this country—and that includes 54 percent of Republicans. The rich just keep getting richer, said Harry Bruinius in, and “the public has been taking notice.” Since 2009, 95 percent of U.S. economic gains have gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. Wall Street stocks and corporate profits are soaring to all-time highs, yet on Main Street, salaries have been stagnant, and millions can’t find jobs that pay middle-class salaries. Americans who once believed that anyone could climb the ladder with hard work and talent now suspect that the system is “stacked against them.”

The rich may be getting richer, said Nick Gillespie in, but that doesn’t mean it’s getting harder to join their ranks. A study released last week by Harvard economists shows that a child born into the poorest fifth of U.S. households has the same 7.8 percent chance of climbing the ladder into the richest fifth as he or she did 50 years ago. That figure is “unacceptably low,” but “upward mobility” is still happening. To address income inequality with effective policies, said David Brooks in The New York Times, we have to understand its real roots. The “growing affluence of the rich” isn’t causing the problems of the poor. Those problems are the result of globalization’s impact on “low-skill jobs,” and even more importantly, of social and cultural factors. America’s underclass lives in a world of broken homes, crime-filled communities, dysfunctional schools, and personal chaos. That’s what is keeping people stuck at the bottom, not the growing wealth of the top 1 percent.

Now there’s a convenient rationalization, said Matthew O’Brien in reality is that as the rich award themselves with all the gains created by technology and cheap labor, they’ve come to inhabit “a different world.” Their kids grow up with $40,000-a-year preschools, tutors, private lessons, special college prep, and on and on. On this unlevel playing field, how do kids from the bottom 90 percent compete? Those at the top of the social ladder have one overriding goal, said David Horsey in the Los Angeles Times: “to protect what they have and get even more.” That’s why wealthy individuals and corporations flood Washington and state capitols with political contributions. It’s no accident that people who make $20 million on investments pay lower tax rates than struggling plumbers and teachers. Unless the rich suddenly get a conscience, the U.S. will soon be “the world’s biggest banana republic,” with the ruling plutocrats living behind gilded gates.

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So what’s the answer? said Mickey Kaus in The Wall Street Journal. Democrats may moan about inequality, but when it comes to policies that might reverse the trends, “they got nothin’, as comedians say.” Raising the minimum wage? Hiking the top tax rates? Please. Small tweaks to the status quo will not “stop the top 10 percent from taking home 50 percent of the nation’s income.” Let’s face it: Everyone may be talking about income inequality, but thus far, it’s a problem without a solution.

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