Economic Inequality: 5 Personal Actions

By Bob Burnett
Friday December 06, 2013 - 10:25:00 AM

The United States is experiencing unprecedented income inequality. It’s not only affecting the lives of millions of Americans, but it’s the root cause of political polarization that has paralyzed the Federal government. Here are 5 actions you can take to address economic inequality. 

In 2011, the Congressional Budget Office found that between 1979 and 2007, “After-tax income for the highest-income households grew more than it did for any other group… 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households, 65 percent for the next 19 percent, just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, and 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.” This video summarizes the problem. 

In a recent issue of THE NEW YORKER, Harvard Historian Jill Lepore analyzed political polarization, concluding, “Polarization in Congress maps onto one measure better than any other: economic inequality.” The greater the gap between the rich and the poor, “the greater the disagreement between liberals and conservatives, the less Congress is able to get done.” 

Here are 5 actions you can take to help move us out of this deplorable situation. 

1. Support a progressive candidate for President. The probable 2016 Democratic presidential candidate is Hillary Clinton. She’s unlikely to make economic inequality a prominent part of her platform unless progressives push her. 

That’s why it’s vital that progressives support Senator Elizabeth Warren now. A recent Politico article described Warren’s presidential candidacy as a “nightmare” both for Hillary Clinton and Wall Street. “[Candidate Warren] most likely would hammer away at the gap between executive pay and average wages and make the case for higher taxes on investment income enjoyed by the wealthiest Americans.” 

2. Work to ensure that Democrats take control of Congress in 2014. No meaningful economic inequality legislation will happen unless Democrats control Congress in 2014. There’s a series of laws President Obama would sign if both the House and Senate approved them. Among these are: • Raising taxes for corporations and the 1 percent • Breaking up big banks and corporations • Reducing the role of money in elections (reversing the “Citizens United”) • Strengthening the social safety net • Increasing support for education Progressives should support Democratic candidates where they offer a real alternative to Republicans. For example, in the Senate this would mean supporting Kentucky Democratic contender Alison Grimes against incumbent Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. In the House this would mean supporting candidates such as Iowa Democrat Jim Mowrer against incumbent Republican Congressman Steve King. 

There are key actions you can take to address economic inequality at the local level: 

3. Work to raise the minimum wage so that it becomes a living wage. The current Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Economist Arindrajit Dube points out that for 20 years this has been below “the poverty wage level for a single full-time worker with one child,” which is $8.11 in 2013. Paul Krugman suggests raising the minimum wage to $10.10 noting, “a minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side affects.” Indeed, there’s little support for the conservative argument that raising the minimum wage would “kill” jobs. 

4. Strengthen the role of unions. As union membership has declined from roughly 35 percent of workers, after World War II, to 15 percent of workers today, inequality has increased. Union membership may be down but a recent Pew Research poll found that 51 percent few unions favorably. Now is the time to take action to support the ability of workers to organize and to push for more worker involvement in company management. 

5. Reach out to the poor and unfortunate in our communities. In a recent ALTERNET interview social philosopher Noam Chomsky observed that “the business class,” i.e. the 1 percent, is engaged in “a long and continuing class war against working people and the poor.” It’s a war that has produced record levels of income and wealth inequality and the widespread belief that the poor deserve their status because they are slackers. For example, Republican congress members justify cutting food stamps, and other forms of aid to the poor, because they believe public assistance demotivates the recipients. 

In his memorable address to the 2004 Democratic Convention, Barack Obama said 

It's not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people. If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription, who has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer - even if it's not my grandparent… It is that fundamental belief - I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper - that makes this country work.”
At the root of inequality is a moral choice: we either believe in the maxim, “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper,” or we don’t. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at bburnett@