A Washington Post analysis notes an odd contradiction about American equality: The nation keeps gaining more social equality as blacks, women, gays, Hispanics and other once-excluded groups win full human rights -- but economic equality deteriorates as the 1 percent elite at the top grab ever-greater wealth and the working class falls behind.
Slippage of the U.S. middle class is the subject of several new books and documentary films. One of the movies, "Two American Families," narrated by Bill Moyers, is to be shown tonight on the PBS "Frontline" show.
The film features two Milwaukee families -- the Neumanns, who are white, and the Stanleys, who are black. In the 1990s, both prospered as the parents held good-paying union jobs in factories.
But they began sinking when manufacturing was sent overseas. The laid-off parents were forced to settle for new jobs paying only half their previous income. They struggled hard, working long hours, but suffered worsening problems.
The white couple split apart and the family home was lost. The black couple stayed together, and their teenage children got odd jobs to help earn family income. It was an ordeal for everyone.
A New Yorker account says the documentary reveals sad reality: "Tony Neumann trying to hold back his tears at Sunday mass, the hardening of Terry Neumann's features ... Jackie Stanley's sense of failure, Claude Stanley's undaunted laugh even as his eyes flash with anger."
The magazine article is by George Packer, author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which outlines the rapid rise of rich entrepreneurs while average families face dimmer prospects.
"CEO pay in 2012 increased by 16 percent over the previous year, with the median compensation package now at $15.1 million," he wrote. "The blessings at the top grow more fruitful year after year, in good times and in bad."
He points out that six heirs of Sam Walton, founder of the Wal-Mart chain, now "have as much money as the bottom 30 percent of Americans" -- about 100 million people.
Packer sneers at right-wing sociologists like Charles Murray, who "believe that the decline of America's working class comes from a collapse of moral values." Instead, he says, laid-off workers are victims of deep economic changes beyond their grasp. They try hard -- "these people do what they're supposed to do. They have to navigate this heartless economy by themselves. And they keep sinking and sinking."
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says America has become "the most class-ridden nation in the Western world -- the country where children of the wealthy are most likely to inherit their parents' status."
On the PBS NewsHour, Northeastern University economist Andrew Sum noted that more than 5 million U.S. jobs have been created since the Great Recession -- but poor black high school dropouts still have a 95 percent unemployment rate.We're glad that social equality is bringing complete citizenship to gays, women, blacks and other former outsiders -- and we're sad that economic inequality lessens opportunity for working families. Conscientious Americans should support every effort to help the underdogs attain secure lives in the fast-changing economy.