Inequality in America

A map representing the income inequality in the United States. Graphic by Mikaela '13.

If you really want to know what Occupy Wall Street has been pro­testing, it’s the following statistic: the richest 10% of Americans own ⅔ of America’s net worth. That would be like ten girls in your grade control­ling 66 chocolate chip cookies from Café M, leaving the other 90 of you to split 33 cookies (assuming there were only 100 cookies available). That means the 10 “richest” would get about 6.5 cookies each, while the rest would each be able to have about ⅓ of a cookie.

The American dream represents the notion that anyone can make it in America if she works hard enough. Americans thus tolerate a huge gap between rich and poor in the hopes that one day they’ll make it to the 1%. It could be our shameless op­timism that blinds us from seeing the reality in front of us: income in­equality in America is staggering, and it’s getting worse.

This is the America we live in to­day, a society of the haves and the have-nots. The enormous dispar­ity between the richest rich and the poorest poor has steadily been growing since 1970, with most peo­ple who used to be in the middle class, now falling into the “poor” category. It seems as though these days, the rich are all private plane, caviar and quick-jaunts-to-Europe rich, while the poor are mostly in dire poverty. This is unhealthy. This is the kind of wealth distribution that spurred the Great Depression 80 years ago.

In order to keep the poor from liv­ing under grisly conditions we have developed what is often referred to as a “social safety net,” which en­compasses social welfare programs like Social Security and food stamps (EBT). The thing is, in order to pay for those programs, the government needs money. The government gets its money from taxes. But taxes are a tricky issue when you have most rich people already paying a larger percentage of their income than the poor do for services that arguably benefit the latter more.

So how do the rich avoid paying taxes for services they don’t need? With politicians becoming increas­ingly dependent upon huge mone­tary donations to get elected, it is re­ally the rich who end up bankrolling their favorite candidates straight to Washington, DC. And if the super-rich are financing the campaigns of politicians, you better believe that they’re supporting congressmen who aren’t going to raise their tax rates. Oftentimes, the congressmen are pretty rich, too, and have a vest­ed interest in keeping their own tax rates low.

Because anyone with money, power or both is working only in his or her own best interest instead of thinking of the greater good, we’ve ended up with a near-permanent class of impoverished citizens, re­duced social mobility and a govern­ment that’s unwilling or unsure of how to fix it.