The spectacular gap between rich and poor has much more to do with problems of social inequality in present-day American than any other factor. De-regulation and unprecedented cooperation between government and corporate America in recent years have undermined the idea that all Americans have equal access to social liberties and an expectation of prosperity. The undermining of the American middle class has created new categories of poverty, and has sent the country down a path that seems headed for an oppressive, English-style class system, in which the underprivileged have virtually no hope of advancement. At present, only an activist government with the political will to institute fundamental change can hope to alter the current status quo.
Keywords: De-regulation, American middle class, English, class system.
The New Yardstick: Economic Reality and Social Inequality in 21st-CenturyAmerica
Not long ago, race and ethnicity were the criteria used to judge whether American society offered equality to all its citizens. The Civil War, the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights epoch of the mid-20th century dominated the debate as America struggled, painfully, to overcome the limiting, even self-destructive concepts of what it meant to be a “true American.” With the onset of the 21st century, the nature of the debate shifted significantly toward economics. The gradual erosion of the American middle class and of the “American Dream,” which has come to mean anything from home ownership to financial independence and self-actualization, has called into question the inherent inequality of the nation’s increasingly stratified socio-economic system. The maxim which asserts that two percent of the nation’s population possesses 98 percent of its wealth is illustrative but hardly explains, in practical terms, what has happened to undermine the nation’s promise of equality for all. It is the widening gulf, the growing disparity between rich and poor that leads one to the alarming conclusion that America can no longer truly be considered a “just society.”
Wrongdoers are, in general, punished though it is past time for Americans and the American justice system to reassess the true parameters of what constitutes “wrongdoing.” The classical example is the economically disadvantaged citizen, driven to a life of crime by a lack of educational and employment opportunities. This social model can be traced to the 1960s and is prevalent today, though the “disadvantaged” citizen referred to today must be expanded to include Americans who once proudly considered themselves members of the middle class but, for reasons beyond their control, now find themselves classified as “impoverished,” or
THE NEW YARDSTICK
“economically disadvantaged.” Their economic slide coincides with an erosion of basic civil and legal rights, as the wealthy co-opt the old concept of “equality.” Thus, when we say that wrongdoers generally receive punishment, there must be a redefinition of terms. In the new economic reality, the definition of “wrongdoers” must be expanded to include a new stratum of society, whose reduced financial circumstances increase the likelihood the “new poor” will commit a crime and find themselves at a significant disadvantage in the judicial system.
In November 20111, CBS News aired a story about once-prosperous Forsyth County in the suburban Atlanta area, which until recently boasted the highest average household income in Georgia at about $88 thousand per year (CBS, 2011). Job loss led to expended savings and home foreclosures which, in turn, forced many formerly affluent members of this community to seek food stamps, visit food banks and accept other forms of charity that were once unimaginable. “People lost their jobs and went from great incomes to no incomes,” according to Sandy Beaver, from The Place, Forsyth County’s largest non-profit center (2011). Despite their former economic status, these people are no more likely to receive justice than that part of the population that is traditionally associated with crime. According to James Patterson, it is only a matter of time before the “new poor” are forced to confront the same problems as the “generationally poor,” and turn to crime (Patterson, 2012). The fact that the underlying cause (economic) of this phenomenon is marginalized and largely ignored is indicative of a much larger social problem. Forced into poverty by an increasingly inequitable economic system, the “new poor” have greatly expanded the concept of the “criminal element,” a convenient term used to justify the denial of justice to a wide swath of the population.
Just as the terms “wrongdoer” and “poor” have new meaning, the idea of rights and responsibilities in modern American society mirror the new demographic shift. Traditionally, rights and responsibilities have referred to the trade-off, or balancing, between individual liberties and the individual’s responsibility not to take undue advantage of those freedoms. And while that basic concept is still integral to a fully functioning democratic society, rights and responsibilities also refers to the responsibility of a free society to maintain social equilibrium. This is essential, and underscores the importance of a vital maintaining the middle class. So long as there is a middle class, those who occupy the lower levels of society have some hope for upward mobility, for improving their situation. This responsibility transcends the halls of government; it lies within the interests of all Americans, rich and poor, to uphold this uniquely American idea of social equality. To fail in this important task is to give in to the kind of class system that eventually undid the British empire.
American society is doing a poorer job of guarding against this eventuality than at any time in the past 100 years. The deregulation of Wall Street and the “grandfathering” of corporate interests at the governmental level have vested power in the hands of the wealthy at a level not seen since the early 20th century. Left to their own devices, America’s wealthiest are poor stewards of social equality. The past 15 years has seen the aggrandizement of a society in which the wealthy have the rights and the poor (and the new poor) have the responsibility. In his book So Rich, So Poor, Peter Edelman, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy, writes that in 2010 the average annual salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 million, whereas the median income for African-Americans is approximately $32,000 per year (Edelman, 26). One need
only look at the staggering wealth gap to appreciate the robber baron mentality that has gripped the rich and powerful, and the government that has empowered them, in recent years. In 1983, the country’s wealthiest 1 percent had 1,500 times more wealth than the bottom 40 percent in 1983; by 2001, this gap had exploded to more than 4,400 (Edelman, 33). With so much of America’s wealth and resources going to the top of the economic food chain, there is slim hope that a balance between social rights and responsibilities - in any sense - can be maintained.
At present, all men are most certainly not created equal in America. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine true social equality surviving in a country with such an enormous gap between rich and poor (particularly with so many more in the poor category). An activist government with an aggressive, well-conceived programmatic approach to educating and economically empowering the disadvantaged is needed; a government that seeks nothing less than institutional change. Until the political will can be found to enact such fundamental change, American society will continue to diverge so radically that the old notions of social and economic equality could be lost forever. To reach that point, much more work must be done to level the playing field, to democratize the political process and remove the yoke of corporate/financial control from the American electoral system. Thomas Jefferson wrote that it is the express role of representative government to “curb the excesses of the monied interests” (Taylor, 133). Jefferson said little about what happens when the monied interests take control of society, nor what kind of social equality to expect when that takes place. As such, the great Achilles Heel of the American Capitalist system appears to be that those who control wealth eventually reach a level of power where they can sacrifice social equality in favor of profit.
“America’s New Poor.” CBS Sunday Morning. CBS, 20 November 2011.
Edelman, P. (2012). So Rich, So Poor: Why it’s So Hard to End Poverty in America. New
York: The New Press.
Patterson, J. (2012). “A Prospectus on the Characteristics of the New Poor and its Impact on
School Age Children.” Maryville, MO: Northwest Missouri State University.
Taylor, J. (2006). Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey and
the Jeffersonian Legacy. Columbia, MO: Univ. of Missouri Press.