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Mark Mellman: Inequality: Big problem, poor message

Last week I argued that income equality in the U.S. has reached historic highs (and also is greater than in any other advanced country) and that such inequality is neither necessary to produce growth, nor does it trickle down. Equally important, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the richest 1 percent is not a natural or inevitable consequence of the free market; it is aided and abetted by government policy. 

I meant it as a stinging indictment of income inequality. Now I want to banish that term from your message vocabulary. 

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A rather sterile debate has emerged over whether Americans “care” about inequality. There is little doubt our fellow citizens recognize the existence of inequality and that large numbers wish the problem would be redressed. 

From a message perspective, that’s not the point. Other questions loom larger. Is the concept clear, simple and unambiguous? Just how important is it relative to other related ideas? Is it the strongest and most persuasive way to generate support for relevant policies or to point to the problem? 

The answers to those questions are clearly “no.”

Equality is at best an ambiguous term with multiple referents. Google it and you will find pages on same-sex marriage, gender equality, racial discrimination, the developmentally disabled, real estate valuation, and Beyoncé, among others. 

Indeed, ambiguity lies even within the narrower ambit of income inequality. Are we talking about equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes? Americans are committed to the former but deeply uncomfortable with the latter. And income inequality is in fact quite close to the latter. Certainly every statistic I proffered last week in demonstrating inequality was about outcomes, not opportunities. 

Perhaps more significant, however salient reducing income inequality may be, it is demonstrably less important to voters than any number of other priorities. Do this thought experiment: If you could only achieve one, would you rather reduce poverty or reduce income inequality? Most people are like you, choosing poverty, putting inequality at least second even on this list of two. 

Polls find a variety of other related goals commanding higher priority. In response to an open-ended question, just 1 percent identified income inequality as the nation’s most important problem, compared to 35 percent who cited jobs and another 29 percent who focused on the “economy” more generally.

Recently an AP-NORC poll found 67 percent urging the federal government to invest at least a great deal of effort in reducing unemployment, compared to 44 percent who want a similar level of effort expended on reducing the gap between the wealthy and the poor. 

An earlier Gallup poll found 82 percent saying that growing the economy was at least very important, while 70 percent thought it important to increase economic opportunity. Only 46 percent identified reducing the income gap as important.

While just over a third believe it’s the responsibility of government to reduce income differences, nearly twice as many — 61 percent — say: “The economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.” Only 36 percent feel the system is “generally fair to most Americans.”  

Creating jobs, increasing opportunity, making the economy work for everyone and rebuilding this country’s middle class, instead of making the wealthiest 1 percent richer and everyone else poorer — all these are more effective rallying cries than reducing inequality. 

So are the specifics. Two-thirds to three-quarters consistently favor increasing the minimum wage, higher taxes on millionaires, greater spending on education and additional aid to the poor.

While inequality is a serious problem, it is no one’s strongest message. Advocates are more likely to achieve their public policy goals with messages emphasizing jobs or the minimum wage, or even by attacking an economic system that unfairly bestows benefits on those at the top, than by debating inequality.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.