The Herald Bulletin

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Columns

October 2, 2013

Primus Mootry: America's income inequality: a class act?

We live in a class society. More and more, class status is fixed by the circumstances of birth. If you are born rich, it is likely you will stay rich. If you are born into the middle class or in poverty, that is likely where you will die, and sooner rather than later. The evidence suggests that’s the way things are.

Many prefer to apply the salve of popular myth to the open wounds of gross income inequality in this land. The wounds, by the way, are not just to the poor, but to all of us — the entire economy. I suppose there are at least three main reasons we reach for salve instead of economic salvation. First, issues of income inequality and class are complex, murky, and difficult to talk about.

Second, the complexity lies in the fact that most Americans see themselves as middle class, even though they have no working definition of the term. In general, I think being in the middle class means you have a family income of anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000. Then variables of family size, debt, spending habits, and so forth kick in.

That’s part of what makes it murky. Income and solid middle-class status are not necessarily related except, perhaps, in the imagination of wage earners. It is possible, for example, for a family earning over $100,000 to technically be broke. Many with earnings in that range are one or two paychecks away from financial ruin.

Third, the chief difficulty in bringing the subject into the public forum is the deeply embedded idea of America as a meritocracy — it’s called the American Dream. Any talk about income inequality or re-distribution of private wealth (higher taxes) is considered anti-capitalist and, hence, anti-American. That is partially why ill-informed citizens routinely vote against their own interests. Remember Joe The Plumber?

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