The not-so-simple politics of inequality and the middle class

Soaring inequality should be leading to policy and political change. So why hasn’t it?

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Thomas Piketty’sbest-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century catapulted the discussion of inequality to great prominence. Even Republicans now say that thisis a pressing problem that has to be dealt with soon.

However, the discussion about inequality today is actually quite different from what happened in the past. The last book on inequality to capture widespread public attention was Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States. This book inspired the “War on Poverty,” leading to the expansion of social programs that served the poor and the elderly (many of whom were also poor).

Today’s focus on inequality is more expansive and tied to the issue of middle class stagnation—i.e., the assertion that American families and workers have had very little real growth in their incomes or earnings over the past several decades (usually dated back to 1973 or 1979). This differs greatly from the experience of the 1950s and 1960s, when middle class incomes and earnings were rising steadily.

Given the huge numbers of voters in the middle class, inequality should be an explosive political issue. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement, for example, chose as its slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent,” picking up directly on Piketty’s focus on the growing share of income going to the richest one percent.

Nevertheless, concerns about inequality have yet to lead to major policy change or to significant electoral victories for Democrats, the political party most concerned by inequality and its impacts. While some progressives may offer a variety of explanations for why Americans seem to be acting directly against their own interests – such as media bias, the Democratic Party’s capture by elite interests, etc. – there’s another explanation: That the accepted findings on middle-class stagnation are wrong.

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