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The Mobility Myth
Published on Monday, June 6, 2005 by the New York Times
The Mobility Myth
by Bob Herbert
 

The war that nobody talks about - the overwhelmingly one-sided class war - is being waged all across America. Guess who's winning.

A recent front-page article in The Los Angeles Times showed that teenagers are faring poorly in a tight job market because of the fierce competition they're getting from older workers and immigrants for entry-level positions.

On the same day, in the business section, the paper reported that the chief executives at California's largest 100 companies took home a collective $1.1 billion in 2004, an increase of nearly 20 percent over the previous year. The paper contrasted that with the 2.9 percent raise that the average California worker saw last year.

The gap between the rich and everybody else in this country is fast becoming an unbridgeable chasm. David Cay Johnston, in the latest installment of the New York Times series "Class Matters," wrote, "It's no secret that the gap between the rich and the poor has been growing, but the extent to which the richest are leaving everybody else behind is not widely known."

Consider, for example, two separate eras in the lifetime of the baby-boom generation. For every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent of the population between 1950 and 1970, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162. That gap has since skyrocketed. For every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent between 1990 and 2002, Mr. Johnston wrote, each taxpayer in that top bracket brought in an extra $18,000.

It's like chasing a speedboat with a rowboat.

Put the myth of the American Dream aside. The bottom line is that it's becoming increasingly difficult for working Americans to move up in class. The rich are freezing nearly everybody else in place, and sprinting off with the nation's bounty.

Economic mobility in the United States - the extent to which individuals and families move from one social class to another - is no higher than in Britain or France, and lower than in some Scandinavian countries. Maybe we should be studying the Scandinavian dream.

As far as the Bush administration is concerned, the gap between the rich and the rest of us is not growing fast enough. An analysis by The Times showed the following:

"Under the Bush tax cuts, the 400 taxpayers with the highest incomes - a minimum of $87 million in 2000, the last year for which the government will release such data - now pay income, Medicare and Social Security taxes amounting to virtually the same percentage of their incomes as people making $50,000 to $75,000. Those earning more than $10 million a year now pay a lesser share of their income in these taxes than those making $100,000 to $200,000."

The social dislocations resulting from this war that nobody mentions have been under way for some time. But the Bush economic policies have accelerated the consequences and intensified the pain.

A big problem, of course, is that American workers have been hurting badly for years. Revolutionary improvements in technology, increasingly globalized trade, the competition of low-wage workers overseas and increased immigration here at home, the decline of manufacturing, the weakening of the labor movement, outsourcing and numerous other factors have left American workers with very little leverage to use against employers.

Many in the middle class are mortgaged to the hilt, maxed out on credit cards and fearful to the point of trembling that all they've worked for might vanish in a downsized minute.

The privileged classes, with the Bush administration's iron cloak of protection, avoid their fair share of taxes, are reluctant to pay an honest dollar for an honest day's work (the federal minimum wage is still a scandalous $5.15 an hour), refuse to fight in their nation's wars, and laugh all the way to their yachts.

The American dream was about expanding opportunities and widely shared prosperity. Now we have older people and college grads replacing people near the bottom in jobs that offer low pay, no pensions, no health insurance and no vacations.

A fellow named Mark McClellan, who was bounced out of a management position when Kaiser Aluminum closed down in Spokane, Wash., told The Times in the "Class Matters" series: "I may look middle class. But I'm not. My boat is sinking fast."

© 2005 NY Times, Co.

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