Why you should care

Concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor? You can talk about it now. 

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For decades, talk about economic inequality was taboo. Those who tried were met with accusations of sour grapes, inciting class warfare, or — gasp! — advocating socialism.

But such rhetorical bludgeons appear to have lost force in recent years, and words like “inequality” and “economic fairness” have at last found a place at the table of mainstream American political discourse. It’s not quite the head of the table, but it’s not the servants’ quarters either.

Words like “inequality” and “economic fairness” have at last found a place at the table of mainstream American political discourse.

“The core issue of economic justice has been getting more traction now than during most of my time in organizing,” says Andrew Friedman, who’s been a progressive organizer for more than 15 years and now co-directs the Center for Popular Democracy in New York. Derecka Mehrens, executive director of labor-oriented think tank Working Partnerships USA in San Jose, Calif., agrees: “There’s been a sea change in how and even whether we talk about inequality.”

Andrew speaking at podium outdoors

Andrew Friedman.

Source William Alatriste/Center for Popular Democracy

The signs are everywhere. In his November apostolic exhortation, the pope warned of the “tyranny” of unfettered capitalism and called “an economy of exclusion and inequality” sinful. Clear majorities of Americans support hiking the minimum wage and other policies that aim to reduce the wealth gap. Earlier this month, President Obama positioned inequality and lack of social mobility as the “defining issue of our time.” Mayors-elect of major cities all made economic inequality central to their platforms. And this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction went to George Packer’s The Unwinding, which chronicles rising social and economic inequality in the United States.

Inequality talk is no longer off-limits for a simple reason: The lot of many has stagnated or worsened over the past decade, in some cases severely.

Some credit the 2011 Occupy movements for popularizing economic inequality. (Or blame it, depending on their perspective.) But the main reason inequality talk is no longer off-limits is probably simpler: The lot of many has stagnated or worsened over the past decade, in some cases severely. Some 10 million people lost their homes in the Great Recession. Although unemployment is at a five-year low, the decline is partly because many have stopped looking for work.

As OZY noted a few weeks ago, the lag between technical “recovery” and job growth is lengthening, and these days it’s lingering four to five years. No wonder the Great Recession’s rough ride seems endless. Moreover, while worker productivity has increased over the past decade, real wages have stagnated or declined — leaving the average worker to wonder just where the gains from productivity are going.

It was harder to complain about during the Clinton years, when broad-based growth lifted all boats, yachts and dinghies alike.

“They hear the news that the stock market is climbing and say, Oh really?” Mehrens says.

2 women hugging surrounded by people,

Lovely A. Warren won election as mayor of Rochester in 2013.

Source Marie De Jesus/AP

Economic inequality has been growing since at least the early 1980s. But it was harder to complain about during the Clinton years, when broad-based growth lifted all boats, yachts and dinghies alike. Economic inequality grew during the Bush years too, but those were the days of subprime homeownership and plasma TVs for all. Five years after the collapse of that easy-credit economy, most Americans are still hurting. The average household has recovered less than half the wealth it lost during the recession.

As a result, income inequality has become a winning issue in some cities. The mayors-elect of New York, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis made economic justice a central plank of their platforms — and did so despite naysayers and with newfound success. New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s “tale of two cities,” for instance, was not much different from Fernando Ferrer’s campaign theme in 2005 or Ruth Messinger’s in 1997 — but only in the New York of 2013 did it resonate.

Not that the discursive war has been won, mind you. Plenty of people and conservative think tanks still argue that inequality has nothing to do with poverty. Winning a war of words wouldn’t be enough anyway, organizers say: “We need to figure out how to use this sea change in how we talk about inequality to how we act against inequality,” says Mehrens.

The shift could signal a readiness to engage meaningfully with issues like the living wage or tax increases on top earners.

The newfound cache of certain phrases has had some perverse effects. Developers and other big employers have latched onto terms like “living wage” but not always with worker-friendly intentions, says Lee Strieb, a researcher with labor organization Unite Here. Developers have “attempted to wrap themselves in the flag of the living wage, almost as a shield to avoid unionization,” says Strieb. ”There is a heightened sensitivity to the need to address [the wage] issue — but to the extent they can address it in a superficial way, they will.”

De Blasio speaking at a press conference with mics all around him

Mr. de Blasio’s relentless critique of economic inequality in New York seemed to resonate with voters, who elected him in a landslide.

Source Getty

It’s unclear whether 2014 will set in motion changes to our income distribution. Mayors alone may have little power to tackle the issue. They usually can’t run big deficits and, in cities like San Francisco and New York, space for affordable housing is hard to find. Most important, mayors can’t singlehandedly restore the middle-class jobs that disappeared during the recession.

Yet the shift in tone and rhetoric is significant and could signal a readiness to engage meaningfully with issues like the living wage or tax increases on top earners. Consider Cam Kruse, 72, a mostly retired civil engineer who is active in ISAIAH, a social justice organization of about 100 churches in metropolitan Minneapolis. Kruse believes in small government. When working full time, he perched in the top one to three percent of earners. And he was a Republican for most of his adult life.

But earlier this year he found himself urging the state legislature to raise tax rates on top earners, which, he said, had fallen through the decades. Growing “gaps” in education, health, housing and transportation worried him. “My success, and that of all the other top earners in Minnesota, has been based on the investments that people before us made,” he testified. “It is our turn to give back and make investments for those who will be our future.”

The tax increase passed.

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