The United States has the most inequitable distribution of wealth of any developed country in the world. The top 1% own 40% of the nation’s wealth. The US has 26% of the world’s 2208 billionaires, including 12 of the top 15. The three wealthiest Americans have more wealth than the entire bottom half of the US population.
Meanwhile, those in that bottom half struggle to get by. 39.7 million (or 12.3% of) Americans live below the poverty line, including 17.5% of all children under 18. Tens of millions of others live barely above it. 78.8% percent of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and 71% are in debt. On any given night an estimated 554,00 Americans are homeless.
This maldistribution of national wealth has major societal consequences. Studies by British researchers have found strong correlations between economic inequality and a variety of social ills including obesity, heavy drug use, shorter life expectancy, high rate of teen births, high rates of violent crime, poor educational performance, high rates of incarceration, less social mobility, fewer job opportunities, etc. Compared to other developed countries, the United States performs badly on all these measures, suggesting that our high degree of economic inequality is a prime cause. It is also a major factor in the US’s ranking of 108th out of 140 countries in the Happy Planet Index.
Yet almost nothing is done to address the problem. That’s because the American political system tilts heavily in favor of big corporations and rich individuals. Research by noted economists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, analyzing 1779 public policy issues addressed by the US government during a 21-year period found that economic elites and organized interest groups dominate policymaking at the expense of ordinary citizens. In their words, “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” (p. 575).
In short, it’s the wealthiest stratum of US society, not the populace as a whole, that owns the politicians who run the federal government. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a virtual quid pro quo relationship, with politicians catering to those same wealthy interests. It’s an arrangement that is well understood by all involved. In the 2014 election, the wealthiest .01% of taxpayers contributed 29% of all campaign dollars. In 2018, one donor alone gave $122,250,000 (and was rewarded by his wife being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor).
What can be done about this? Various remedies have been proposed, but none of them will work unless large numbers of citizens get behind them. This is where public discourse comes in. The problem needs to be communicated to as many citizens as possible, using language and images they understand and are energized by.
Most of all, the problem needs to be properly framed with the right label. As Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz has said, “The strategic and tactical use of specific words and phrases can change how people think and how they behave” (p. xxi).
Luntz has few peers when it comes to devising politically powerful labels. In the 2000s, when Republicans in Congress wanted to reduce or eliminate the federal tax on wealthy estates (commonly called the “estate tax”), Luntz advised Republicans to use the term “death tax” instead. Although the tax applied to only a tiny percentage of the US population – the word “death” misled many ordinary Americans into thinking it applied to them. This gave the term “death tax” powerful traction, with the result that since 2000 the number of estates having to pay the tax was pared from 52,000 in that year down to only 5,000 in 2017, and Republican politicians want to eliminate it entirely.
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When it comes to the longstanding hyperconcentration of wealth in the US, the label used most often is “income inequality.” The term is a bit misleading both as a description of the problem and as an implied remedy. For one thing, it refers only to income, not to accumulated wealth. Much of the financial inequity in the United States is due to inherited wealth, savings, and other forms of passive wealth accumulation that most people don’t think of as “income” and, in many cases, don’t even have.
Also, “income inequality” suggests that its opposite – income equality – is the solution. The idea that everyone should have the same paycheck is contrary to America’s deeply embedded self-image as an entrepreneurial meritocracy, a “land of opportunity.” Few Americans, even those most unfairly victimized by our predatory capitalism, would advocate that we all have the same income.
Nonetheless, “income inequality” has caught on with the general public. Working people generally do gauge their financial situation by their income. And “inequality” has a suitably pejorative connotation, similar to that of “inequity.” Finally, the repeated word-initial in-’s give the term a certain euphony. So “income inequality” seems to be the settled term for the economic disease plaguing this country.
For a movement to succeed, however, it needs not just an issue but a solution, not just a negative slogan but a positive one as well. Indeed, all successful political movements in this country have had a positive label attached to them. Just think of how certain labels have become powerful catchwords in American political discourse over the years: emancipation, civil rights, peace movement, women’s liberation, pro-life, pro-choice, reproductive freedom, gun control, gay rights, etc. Each of those terms set a positive goal for adherents and each was indispensable to the success of its respective movement.
In like fashion, America’s income inequality crisis needs to have a positive counterpart, needs to be embedded in our collective search for the common good. The best candidate, to my mind, is “economic fairness.” It’s not inequality per se that bothers people, it’s the general unfairness of the system. America’s economic reward system is now so out of whack that hard work no longer seems to even factor into it. Millions of Americans, perhaps even the majority of adults, put in long hard hours doing useful work that benefits the larger society yet just scrape by, while the top .01% rake in millions by exploiting the system. That’s not fair, and most Americans know it.
The United States is the world’s richest nation and American citizens justly want a fair share of that wealth. That means having a livable minimum wage, affordable housing and healthcare, free public education, equal pay for equal work, steeply progressive taxation, etc. If other countries can provide such basics, why can’t we? Economic fairness is the new frontier.