CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Q: What caused the "fiscal cliff" crisis in Congress? A: Stubborn GOP determination to save the top 1 percent of Americans from paying more taxes. That was the underlying issue. Republicans fought for months to protect the rich, before finally yielding.
The "cliff" battle spotlights a worsening U.S. problem: growing inequality. Ever since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the privileged elite have pulled ever-farther away from the middle class and average families. The gap has widened into a Grand Canyon, the worst income disparity among Western democracies.
The last-minute compromise that solved the fiscal cliff mess let taxes rise to previous levels for individuals earning more than $400,000 a year and couples above $450,000. How many West Virginians are in that bracket? Less than one-half of 1 percent. Sen. Jay Rockefeller said 99.7 percent of Mountain State residents won't feel the increase.
"This bill takes solid steps toward narrowing the income divide between the very wealthy and those who work but struggle every day," Rockefeller said. He added that Democrats and President Obama won a victory "despite warped efforts by House Republicans to place more of the burden on those already hurting."
Widening inequality harms America, but most middle-class folks ignore it. The Economist of London commented:
"Americans do not go in for envy. The gap between rich and poor is bigger than in any other advanced country, but most people are unconcerned . . . . For many Europeans, America's brand of capitalism is already far too unequal . . . . Every measure shows that, over the past quarter-century, those at the top have done better than those in the middle, who in turn have outpaced those at the bottom . . . . Changes of the past few years are simply more steps along paths that began to diverge for rich and poor in the Reagan era . . . . No other country has seen such extreme shifts."
A couple of years ago, the Bill Moyers Journal on public television quoted researcher Richard Wilkinson:
"The United States has the greatest inequality of income of any developed country except Singapore. . . . The most unequal countries have more homicide, more obesity, more mental illness, more teen pregnancy, more high school dropouts and more people in prison . . . . These are not just a little bit worse in more unequal societies, but are much worse."
This week, a new national report said America's "working poor" category has risen to 47.5 million people, climbing relentlessly since the Great Recession. "Growth in the ranks of the working poor coincides with continued growth in income inequality," The Washington Post noted.
Equality -- that was a hidden subcurrent beneath the fiscal cliffhanger in Congress.