Economic inequality produces damage that last a lifetime and beyond. That’s one reason why in 2013 President Obama said that “increasing inequality … challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.” The study above found that the wealth gap between the top 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent became even worse in 2015. Earnings for the top 1 percent reached a “new high” that year. The 1 percent’s income increase of 7.7 percent was nearly twice everyone else’s.
According to the study, “this uneven recovery is unfortunately on par with a long-term widening of inequality since 1980, when the top 1 percent of families began to capture a disproportionate share of economic growth.” 1980 was the year Ronald Reagan first took office and the year in which he began a new era of economic conservatism in the United States. The message of these numbers couldn’t be clearer: it’s time for that era to end. Our 35-year experiment with conservative economics has failed the great majority of our fellow citizens.
A society with this kind of extreme and growing inequality will be unable to sustain itself over time. Inequality interferes with economic growth, robs most of our citizens of opportunity and hope, ensures that millions will live in poverty or near-impoverished conditions, and sickens that part of the human spirit that constantly searches for fairness and equality. It also makes the society we love inherently unstable, especially when our political system as currently demonstrated gives extremely wealthy individuals and corporations excessive control over the government. In doing so, it perpetuates and amplifies the wealth and power of the 1% at the continuing expense of the 99%.
Such economic damage is often carried down the generations, through the children, affecting their health and ability to earn. So what can we do to reduce inequality and heal some of its deep, long-lasting wounds? Here are a few suggesions: We can increase funds for antipoverty programs that provide food, shelter, and other services directly to the poor. We can improve our educational system and provide tuition-free public college to all qualified students. We can address the systemic racial injustice that deprives communities of color of economic resources. We can raise the minimum wage, which has fallen far behind inflation (and even farther behind productivity) since 1968.
In addition, we can also strengthen the labor movement. A recent study (https://ourfuture.org/20151102/how-unions-fight-inequality-and-strengthen-democracy) by the International Monetary Fund found that a “decline in union density has been strongly associated with the rise of top income inequality” and that “unionization matters for income distribution.” We must again work hard to provide health insurance for all, and ensure that all working Americans have access to the paid leave programs and other benefits found in other developed countries.
The Fourth of July has come and gone. Another national election awaits us. As you research the candidates, please consider the many scars of inequality that are still here, depriving millions of us of the freedom to choose, to grow, and even to live. And please vote.