On Wednesday, while delivering a speech largely about income inequality
and economic mobility, a populist president invoked a populist pope.
After rattling off a laundry list of dire statistics, President Obama
cited Pope Francis:
“Since 1979, when I graduated from high school, our productivity is up
by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has
increased by less than 8 percent. Since 1979, our economy has more than
doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to a fortunate few.
The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income -- it now
takes half. Whereas in the past, the average C.E.O. made about 20 to 30
times the income of the average worker, today’s C.E.O. now makes 273
times more. And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth
288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this
country. So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed. In
fact, this trend towards growing inequality is not unique to America’s
market economy. Across the developed world, inequality has increased.
Some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about
this at eloquent length. ‘How can it be,’ he wrote, ‘that it is not a
news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is
news when the stock market loses two points?'”
This is a worldwide problem, as the pope made clear, but in this country it’s particularly pernicious.
A study released last month by the World Economic Forum surveyed nearly
1,600 world leaders from academia, business, government and the
nonprofit sector and found that of the top 10 trends facing the world in
2014, income inequality was second on the list. (According to the
report, the top concern was “rising societal tensions in the Middle East
and North Africa.”)
And although in America 51 percent of all income earned went to the
wealthiest fifth of the population while only 3 percent went to the
poorest fifth of the population, Americans were among the least likely
to view inequality as a serious problem in the spring 2013 Pew Global
Attitudes Project Survey.
And yet, it looms as a central problem in this country, but one that is
often invisible from ground level. We remain ensconced in our enclaves
of sameness: subdivisions planned by price point and urban oases of
affluence set amid vast deserts of urban poverty.
We are not likely to recognize the ravages of inequity because of our isolation from one another, but they are there.
In addition, there is less economic mobility in America than in many other wealthy countries.
As the president pointed out:
“The problem is, that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen
diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in
the top 20 percent has about a two in three chance of staying at or near
the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than one in
20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where
The Economic Policy Institute’s “State of Working American, 12th Edition,” released last year
, echoed that sentiment, finding that “U.S. mobility is among the lowest of major industrialized economies.”
And that mobility gap is compounded by a gender gap. According to a 2008 Brookings Institution report
“Close to half (47 percent) of low-income girls compared to 35 percent
of low-income boys end up in the bottom fifth upon adulthood.”
And NPR reported
last month that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women’s
share of minimum wage workers is nearly twice that of men.
That is why it was important for the president to use his speech to
support raising the minimum wage, saying, “It’s well past the time to
raise a minimum wage that, in real terms right now, is below where it
was when Harry Truman was in office.”
Arguments against addressing income inequality often focus on the
possibility of undermining incentives for those at the top. But what
happens if and when inequality begins to undermine incentives for those
in the middle and at the bottom? Honest work should pay an honest wage.
That idea is part of the American social contract and one in danger of
We must ensure that our society rewards innovation, ideas and initiative
while also ensuring equal access to opportunity and more equitable pay
for workers. The American identity depends on it.
This is not an us-versus-them argument, but an all-of-us one.