Income Inequality Isn’t Just About the Poor or the Struggling

Of all the misconceptions about income inequality in the United States, one of the most problematic isn’t denialism or just-world fallacies from the Right. It’s also a too-narrow focus on poverty and struggling families on the Left.

On the center-left/neoliberal side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders’ form of economic populism is seen as unnecessary and uncouth because, in their minds, most Americans are doing just fine. It’s only those who are poor and struggling to get by who require our help, they believe, and that can best be achieved not by significantly reducing the profit-taking of the richest corporate class but by expanding the safety net to catch those who fall behind.

There’s also a racial version of this argument–one that came up in its own way during the recent protest at Netroots Nation, and that is argued more forcefully and succinctly by Charles Ellison at The Root: that minorities have been struggling for decades, but it’s now only because white middle and working class voters feel economically betrayed that economic populism has come to the fore.

There is, of course, a large element of truth to the latter critique. But frankly, given that the conservative racist backlash element of society isn’t about to stop being racist, the newfound ability of whites and minorities to unite in solidarity against the most rapacious elements at the top of the economic ladder should be considered a political advantage rather than a source of resentment. If voters who were unmoved by black poverty to create a stronger social safety net, can be moved to do so by white poverty, that’s troubling for us as a society but an advantage for white and black progressives alike in finally addressing issues we’ve been largely unable to handle due to the Southern Strategy and overwhelming institutional racism expertly manipulated by the conservative backlash.

But the problem with both the neoliberal and the racial critique of modern economic populism is that they underestimate the scale of the problem. The challenge isn’t just about the poor and the struggling. It really is about the 99% of Americans against the top 1%–and even more bluntly, more like the top 99.9% of Americans against the top tenth of one percent.

Even professionals making six-figure incomes are facing a squeeze in modern America. No, we shouldn’t be crying for them, of course, when so many of our citizens are living day-to-day with food insecurity. But it’s still worth noting that economic populism needn’t be limited to those from whom the American Dream has slipped away. Almost everyone can feel the pinch of a modern economy that truly only serves those at the very top. Almost the entirety of wealth concentration has gone to benefit 1/1,000th of the population–typically, the ones who don’t even need to work because they “make” all their money off asset investments.

So if you’re a youngish lawyer or a general physician making a six figure income in a high cost-of-living city, you’re still feeling the effects. Housing is more expensive than ever as tech and finance money drive up real estate and rental costs. Tuition for the kids and your own student loans remain astronomical. Add in car payments and other expenses and suddenly it doesn’t seem like that six figure income goes as far as you thought it would, particularly given the number of hours you’re working.

Those upwardly mobile voters can take one of two perspectives on this: they can resent all the people they feel don’t work as hard as they do and vote to cut social welfare benefits, or they can resent the vultures on Wall Street who are driving up asset bubbles, tuition rates, housing costs and creating economic havoc and uncertainty.

Those in the comfortable, wealthy center-left don’t understand this phenomenon at all and find themselves blindsided by the broad sway of economic populism even among the more stable middle classes. And those who are concerned about the state of poverty in America should, rather than feel resentful that suddenly middle-class people are also feeling the pinch, celebrate the fact that at long last we’re building toward a future where more and more people, no matter their race or income, are finally coming to understand that we’re all getting table scraps compared to the top tenth of 1 percent who are truly taking all the money.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.