Income Inequality and the Slippery Slope

income_inequalityToday, on the heels of President Obama’s speech on income inequality, fast food workers in 100 American cities went on strike in an effort to gain higher wages.

The Guardian has an interview today with one of the striking workers, Laurentina, who earns $9.15/hr working at McDonald’s and is trying to raise four children as a single mother.

However you may feel about it, there can be no doubt that income inequality is a very real and very unbalanced condition in the United States. As the chart I published earlier this week clearly demonstrates, wealth is rapidly diminishing among the bottom 90% of earners. ?The story of the middle class in the last twenty years has been the story of its disappearance. Again, however you might feel about it, there can be no doubt that America is hurtling towards a new economic paradigm that will contain three possible states: the obscenely wealthy (~1%), the not-far-behind (~9%), and the poor (~90%).

Back to Laurentina. I wonder how many people will read her story today and think to themselves, “why does someone who works at McDonald’s think it’s okay to be a single mother with four kids?”

I know I certainly had this reaction at one point reading the article. And it scared me. Because as the remaining vapors of the middle class go quietly into that good night, as jobless rates remain stagnant and an increasing number of potential workers stop searching for jobs because there are none to be had, and as wealth continues to accumulate amongst the top 1% of the nation’s earners, what other opportunities to Laurentina and the hundreds of millions like her have?

And yet, that is how the United States contextualizes a case like this: it’s Laurentina’s fault. She shouldn’t have had those kids. She shouldn’t have allowed her marriage to end (or if she was never married, she should have). She should work harder.

Recent sociological work potently challenges these?antiquated notions of America as a land of opportunity in which anyone can rise to the top if they just apply themselves. But I think there’s another systemic assumption at play here, one that has thus far stayed largely in the shadows.

I would like to see a national conversation on the following topic: what do we as Americans believe are opportunities that anyone can/should have access to, and what do we feel should only be available to those who can pay for it?

Because I am concerned that as money disappears from the masses we are fast approaching a place where we decide that marriages, children, housing, and access to police and fire and even water should only be available to those who can specifically pay for it.

Certainly until very recently this is how Americans felt about access to health care. Challenging this ideology has proven to be extraordinarily difficult, meeting resistance at every turn, not just from the expected people and institutions who do not benefit from the dilution of what was previously an exclusive privilege of their wealth, but also from the very people who stand to benefit the most.


Speak Your Mind