The Herald Bulletin

October 2, 2013

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

The Herald Bulletin

---- — 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?

In spite of the complexity of the subject, however, I argue that it is worth it to explore the class issue if for no reason other than to better understand what we can do as citizens to address the problem of income inequality. Since these inequalities are driven by government tax and other policies, exploring class issues might inspire voters to think “trickle up” instead of trickle down.

We are a class society. At the very, very top, there are roughly 400 families whose combined income is well over two trillion dollars. That’s more than Russia’s entire economy. The few in this group are on a different planet. Their children might pay Justin Bieber a million bucks to appear at a birthday party and, after he performs, he must leave. The Beebs is not one of them.

Just underneath this wealthy group are the super-rich. To understand both groups, here is what comedian Chris Rock had to say: “If Bill Gates (worth $72 billion, I think) woke up with Oprah’s money, he would jump out of a (high-rise) window.” Billion-dollar O is merely super rich. Gulp. Got it?

Then you have the class of garden variety millionaires. These poor rich folk have to work. If they are not careful with their bucks, they can go broke in a heartbeat. I’m sure many of you have heard stories about multi-million dollar lottery winners — millionaires — who went from sugar to shaft a few years after winning big.

Underneath millionaires there are upperclass, upper middle class, middle class, and lower middle class citizens. People in this group are usually very well educated. They live well. They vote. They have to work. Unlike the myth that the wealthy are the job creators, the upperclass and the middle class in general are more key to job creation and economic growth than any other class.

Then you have the working poor, the poor, and what sociologists are calling a “permanent underclass.” This latter group is disproportionately black and Hispanic and, because of their extreme poverty and associated problems, the ladders to upward mobility do not exist. People born into this group are likely to remain there.

lthough I have only been able to scratch the surface here, again, more and more, upward mobility from one class group to another is becoming difficult and, in some cases, next to impossible. Anyway, I said the subject was complex, murky, and difficult. It is. A final thought, though: no matter what class you’re in, the truest wealth is health, common sense and good character or, well, class.

Have a nice day.

Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.