Ever since the 1980s -- when the Reagan administration gave enormous boons to the rich, and corporations used technology to wipe out millions of blue-collar jobs or sent them overseas -- inequality has risen dangerously in the United States. The middle-class heart of America has slipped sadly.
President Obama delivered a landmark speech on this dilemma last week, but national news media paid little attention.
First, the president outlined how America's middle class soared for three decades after World War II, becoming the mighty engine of the U.S. economy. But, since then, he said, the nation has suffered a "relentless, decades-long trend ... a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America's basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead."
"I believe this is the defining challenge of our time," Obama told listeners at a large Washington charity center. He recounted:
"Starting in the late '70s, [the] social compact began to unravel. Technology made it easier for companies to do more with less, eliminating certain job occupations. A more competitive world lets companies ship jobs anywhere. And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits.
"... Businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage. As a trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither. ... And the result is an economy that's become profoundly unequal, and families that are more insecure."
He pointed out that "in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, [but] today's CEO now makes 273 times more. And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country."
Bizarrely, America, the land of opportunity, now has less opportunity than other advanced democracies. The president continued:
"We've seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He's 10 times likelier to stay where he is. In fact, statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, but that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies -- countries like Canada or Germany or France. They have greater mobility than we do, not less."
Obama concluded dourly: "We are a better country than this."
The president recommended several cures: expand college scholarships, increase the minimum wage, boost early education, enlarge job training, guarantee health care, etc.We hope West Virginia's members of Congress back every attempt to reverse the dismal surge of inequality.