Income Inequality Runs Rampant

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," a...
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Americans — with 9.2 percent unemployment rate, bankers raking in billions, corporate profits at record highs and hiring stagnant — should by now be actively, visible and collectively furious.

(Watch the Greeks.)

Yet, as the pols drone on and on and on with their debt ceiling drama — “We won’t tax job-creators” — millions remain screwed, scared, broke and disconnected from the larger polity in any meaningful way.

NBC Nightly News just spent three consecutive evenings addressing the death of Betty Ford and two yammering about the closing of a major L.A. freeway.

The unemployed? The people who can’t even get an interview?


The New York Times addressed it this week:

The United States is in the grips of its gravest jobs crisis since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. Lose your job, and it will take roughly nine months to find a new one. That is off the charts. Many Americans have simply given up.

But unless you’re one of those unhappy 14 million, you might not even notice the problem. The budget deficit, not jobs, has been dominating the conversation in Washington. Unlike the hard-pressed in, say, Greece or Spain, the jobless in America seem, well, subdued. The old fire has gone out.

In some ways, this boils down to math, both economic and political. Yes, 9.2 percent of the American work force is unemployed — but 90.8 percent of it is working. To elected officials, the unemployed are a relatively small constituency. And with apologies to Karl Marx, the workers of the world, particularly the unemployed, are also no longer uniting.

Nor are they voting — or at least not as much as people with jobs. In 2010, some 46 percent of working Americans who were eligible to vote did so, compared with 35 percent of the unemployed…

New York magazine, hardly a bastion of social justice, just ran a compelling little story as well, comparing Manhattan’s poorest district with its richest, which — of course! — sit side by side. One family spent $2,200 in a week (!?) and another scraped by on $500. Fascinating, scary, sad.

I’ve been reading, finally, a Christmas gift, a collection of Jan Morris’ travel writing from 1950 to 2000.

On her visit to Manhattan, she wrote:

America is the land acquisitive, and few Americans abandon the search for wealth or lose their admiration for those who find it. Unassimilated New Yorkers, the millions of un-Americans in this city, no matter how poor or desolate they seem, however disappointed in their dreams, still loyally respect the American idea — the chance for every man to achieve opulence….It is sometimes difficult to keep one’s social conscience in order among the discrepancies of Manhattan. The gulf between rich and poor is so particularly poignant in this capital of opportunity….there is something distasteful about a pleasure-drome so firmly based on personal advantage…you may as well admit that the whole place is built on greed.

This, she wrote in the the early 1950s.

Will it ever change?

How, if at all, does this issue affect your life?

11 thoughts on “Income Inequality Runs Rampant

  1. Oh … I have opinions.I don’t know that it will ever change. Americans are used to living in excess, spending more than they have, etc. My husband and I both work, and we are very mindful of what we can and cannot afford. We live a modest middle-class life, without cable, gym memberships, cell phones, gaming systems, etc.

    The gov’t needs to learn to live a modest life, and Americans need to learn to live within their means. Changing one’s life by literally living within one’s means will require cutbacks of ‘perks’. And many may feel the perks are deserved …

    Basically, one’s mindset needs to change – both in the world of politics and in the homes of Americans.

  2. But…there’s a larger issue….stagnant wages!

    I agree with you that the sense of entitlement is crazy and quite American….BUT so many workers can’t even find a job at any wage and many of them/us are not receiving raises even as our costs (gas, food, other non-luxiry ite,s) are going up every single year, sometimes every month. This drives me mad.

    I am also frugal but, you know, why should others’ greed ($85 million for some CEOs) be seen as a fair wage while the rest of us docilely live on less and less because we cannot earn more?

    1. Generally speaking, I don’t find greed offensive. I am fine with others making significantly more than I make, in part because they employ me. Without their wealth, I would not have a job. And jobs exist – though they are not high end corporate jobs. Folks find themselves too good for McDonalds, maid services, etc., so those jobs remain open. Do those jobs make enough to pay the bills? Perhaps not – so you do more to get more.

      Those CEOs work endless hours – are always ‘on’ and are stressed beyond belief. I do not aim to make a million, because I appreciate the downtime I have. If one has the drive to succeed and make millions – they can make it happen. It takes work. Hard work. I don’t know. I love debating. I’ll stop now. 🙂

  3. The employment rates scare me because I’m the primary provider for my family and with husband going abroad for grad school, I’m going to be the only source of income besides his student loan. I worry that I won’t be able to join him in London if he doesn’t line up a job because we will have a home, car, and income thanks to me and I should stay to protect those assets. I worry that he won’t be able to find a job period, even after graduating from two of the top schools in the US/world. I worry I worry I worry. And then I feel like an ingrate because I do have a job and can pay my bills.

    The real tragedy for me is how short American social memory seems to be. It’s takes decades to create the conditions for a financial meltdown and the problems won’t be solved overnight…and in the meantime people expect to live without sacrifice, without any change in lifestyle, and without any adjustment to government policy. Silly. And singularly unproductive in turning around the ideas and personal philosophies that put us in this position.

    1. I hear you! I have been working freelance since losing my last staff job in the summer of 2006. I sat out the past three years because….six people per opening, plus age discrimination plus a dying industry isn’t a great combo for me…I applied for three FT jobs last week and actually got called to be phone screened for one…NOT a high-level job, and was told that Pulitzer prize winners had also applied.

      I find it sad and truly troubling that you, young and with no kids yet, feel so scared and constrained (reasonably so) in this crappy economy. I had a conversation yesterday, fretting about my minimal retirement savings (better than many, but less than ideal) and a woman my age who made corporate $$$ for years gasped because she had saved less…?! I make less than 1/3 of my 2006 income, and save 25% of it, which means (yup) sacrificing all sorts of fun, cool things I would much rather do. But all that scrimping and saving is STILL getting me nowhere when my earning power is damaged, costs are up and interest rates low.

      The problem for me, in the larger discussion, is WHOSE sacrifice needs to get made now? Certainly not the wealthy, who are getting richer and richer and richer and whose lobbyists run D.C. Thousands of government workers are losing jobs. Teachers are losing jobs. People who “played by the rules” (i.e. got a decent education, lived within their means, whatever) are still screwed by the larger political choices….3 wars but no agreement on what to do domestically? I’d vote for a complete troop withdrawal tomorrow if it could put millions back to work in this country. Which, of course, it would not.

  4. Even though I find myself employed, I think we all have friends that are without a job. I try to make sure I don’t take what I have for granted and always pass on the resume of a friend if I can when I hear of a job opening.

    And yes, sometimes I wonder why some of the stories air on the news when we have much bigger things we are facing.

    1. Many people thought my new book, which talks about this recession in very plain language — like the NC man who went from $140K a year in IT to $8/hr bagging groceries overnights — would become a best-seller. Nope.

      I think, four years into the recession, people are fed UP with grim, grisly, miserable news and it’s so easy to blame the victims (unemployed) and impossible to legislate hiring….I think we’ve hit recession fatigue and, unlike military stories (look, another hero!), there is very little new or cheerful for assignment editors to gin up.

  5. I guess I still subscribe to the American Dream version where you go out and earn your lifestyle. If you go to college to be a chemist and no one is hiring chemists, guess what? Go find something else to do. A college degree is not some chit that you exchange for a job — and you don’t have a right to a house, a nice car, a $500 phone or a $2000 tv just because you want one.

    Having recently been unemployed, I was thankful for unemployment insurance — it wasn’t enough to really live on, but it was enough to offset during a job search. And during that time I cut out a lot of luxuries I had gotten used to.

    1. I agree that hard work is not such a bad thing, nor are we entitled to anything just because we want it. Certainly not the point I’m trying to make here.

      I’m talking about much larger structural and policy decisions that affect us all….bailing out bankers who net billions now while millions of us continue to struggle and re-define. ourselves professionally.

      With all due respect, not everyone has the time, money, good health to “go find something else to do.” Too many people (that would be any, in my book) also spend $$$$ to re-train — into, say, healthcare and education, said to be booming fields full of opportunity — only to find themselves deeper in debt from re-training with no job. My vision of the American dream (which is endlessly debatable!) is not having to re-invent yourself repeatedly while corporate bosses keep shipping jobs overseas or replacing workers with technological fixes — all to boost their profits. That, to me, is a greedy, selfish nightmare.

      1. The one thing to remember about the current disparity between the haves and have-nots is that the majority of working, educated Americans bought into and financed it. Your skyrocketing 401k in the 1990s? Your crazily appreciating house value in the 2000s? Everyone poured their money into those and reaped benefits, even though at some level they KNEW that making 15% a year return made no sense economically or historically. Each one of those were built on Wall Street schemes. I don’t remember anyone complaining about them then.

        Now that reality is striking, it seems unfair that some of the worst manipulators get off scott-free and the rest of us are holding the bag — that’s true. But it’s a bag we all chipped in to create.

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