Close the gaps: Democrats are looking for a message — try this

President Biden speaks about status of the country's fight against COVID-19
Associated Press/Patrick Semansky
President Biden speaks about status of the country’s fight against COVID-19 in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Wednesday, March 30, 2022, in Washington. 

Democrats are looking for a message with enough heft to turn back the predicted red wave in November’s midterm election. However, Democrats already have a powerful message. They just haven’t done a good job articulating it.

So far as messages ago, former President Trump’s “make America great again” — or the more often used “MAGA” —set a very low bar. It was a boon for baseball-cap makers, but it told us nothing. Great is great, but how do we define it? For those who were hungry for details, MAGA had no nutritional value.

President Joe Biden wants substance. As he told party loyalists recently, people struggling to keep their heads above water don’t understand what Democrats have done to deliver on their promises. “You tell them about the American Rescue Plan, and they say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?'” he said.

One of the most important things they’ve been talking about is buried in the dull text of legislation. It goes like this: We used to have a social contract in America. Anyone willing to work hard enough could achieve the American Dream. But that contract has been broken for at least 50 years. The rich have too much power over public policies, while middle- and low-income families can’t afford the basic tools for success. The results are yawning wealth and income gaps between the very rich and everyone else. We are squandering our most precious natural resource — the aspirations and energy of our people. Democrats want to rebuild an opportunity economy.

Defining the problem

Some background is necessary. As one analyst put it, income is a family’s ability to get by, while wealth is its ability to get ahead. Both are important.

Second, the income and wealth gaps have been widening since the 1970s between the richest 1 percent of Americans and everyone else. From 1945 through 1974, the income of all Americans rose at about the same rate. If that had held, the aggregate income of people in the bottom 90 percent would have been $2.5 trillion higher in 2018, according to analysts at the Rand Corporation. It would have been enough to pay every working person in the bottom nine deciles $1,144 a month. Instead, the concentration of income at the top cost workers $50 trillion over the past several decades.

Income inequality is now embedded in our economy. The top 1 percent of income earners make 26 times more than the bottom 99 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meantime, economists at the University of Berkeley report wealth concentration at the end of last year was at its highest level in the post-World War II era.

There is nothing wrong with wealth and income, of course. Higher income and new wealth are the well-deserved rewards for initiative and hard work. But they can be the ill-gotten gains from looting our natural resources and the prospects of our people by obtaining and defending economic advantage, for example, by opposing social programs that reduce the causes and consequences of economic inequities.

The solution to economic inequality is not to guarantee equal income and wealth or impose a massive government wealth-transfer program. It’s to prevent rich individuals and corporations from rigging the economy in their favor and to ensure everyone has access to the basic tools for success, including higher education, collective bargaining, quality health care, affordable child care and a fair tax system.

Third, the lopsided acquisition of wealth indicates many Americans are being denied a right “endowed by their Creator” and identified in the Declaration of Independence. It says the right to pursue happiness is inalienable, meaning no one can take it away. Students of the Declaration of Independence say the founders meant more than income, property and things measured by GDP. In fact, they meant not only the pursuit of our own happiness, but also “that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.” That suggests an obligation to help one another move up the income and wealth ladders.

Inequality indicators

The income and wealth gaps have grown not only because the wealthy have more opportunities, but also because the rich have undue influence on public policy. Besides hiring legions of lobbyists and attorneys, corporations can contribute unlimited money to political parties and campaign committees. They buy access and influence other Americans cannot. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled this type of corruption is legal.

Today, there are more billionaires in the United States than any other country but greater wealth and income inequality than any other industrial nation. Many indicators show how this hurts the quality of life and opportunity in America. Women’s participation in the workforce reached a 33-year low last year after mothers left their jobs to care for children during the pandemic but could not find affordable child care to return. That hurt families that depended on a second income.

The number of unionized workers dropped in half between 1983 and 2021, and the minimum wage has lost 21 percent of its purchasing power since it was last increased in 2009.  Forty percent of undergraduate college students drop out every year, more than half because they can’t afford to continue; dropouts cost the economy $3.8 billion each year. Some 28 million Americans still did not have adequate health care coverage in 2020. And although the United States is the world’s second-richest nation, it ranks only 20th internationally in quality of life.

In addition, economic justice intersects with environmental justice. For example, low-income families are least responsible for pollution that harms their health, and least able to pay for adequate health care. They are least responsible for global climate change, and least able to cope with its adverse impacts.

Democrat proposals in the current Congress, including the Green New Deal and Build Back Better bill, addressed some of these inequities, but Republicans stopped both with allegations of “socialism.” However, socialism is a system in which government controls the means of production. Social justice is much different. It empowers our greatest means of production, our people.

Do Americans care?

In 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that 61 percent of Americans felt there was too much economic inequality. More than 80 percent said the U.S. economic system needed major changes or complete rebuilding, and 66 percent said the federal government should have a lot of responsibility for fixing these things. But fewer than half of Pew’s respondents called this a top national priority.

Most Americans evidently are not aware of how deeply economic inequality tears at the fabric of the country, its families, and its people’s potentials. So, if Democrats were to make this a major campaign issue this year, they would do well to collaborate with foundations and social-justice groups to educate voters about how much inequity matters.

Maybe middle- and lower-income Americans will care enough to reward Democrats with substantial majorities in the House and Senate this November. It’s too bad, but based on the GOP’s record so far, solid Democrat control is the only way to stop a half-century of economic inequity and unleash the suppressed potentials of so many American workers and their families.  

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags American Rescue Plan billionaires Democrats Donald Trump economy Elections Income income inequality Joe Biden midterms 2022 Politics Poverty Republicans Trump William S. Becker

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