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The Politics of Inequality


Manning Marable

The

fundamental issue that will define U.S. politics in the first decade of the

twenty-first century is the spiraling growth of inequality in American life.

One

might respond that "inequality" is not new in U.S. society, and has

always existed. What is "new" is the degree of income stratification

and class polarization we are now experiencing, which is really unlike anything

since the Robber Barons of the nineteenth century’s Gilded Era.

Most

Americans know that household income levels are sharply stratified by race. For

example, in 1998, the median household income for African Americans was $25,

351, only 60 percent of the median white household income of $42, 439. According

to a recent report by United For a Fair Economy, "Shifting Fortunes,"

the average white household in 1995 had $18,000 in financial wealth (net worth

minus equity in owner-occupied housing). By contrast, the average African

American household possessed a grand total of two hundred dollars. The typical

Hispanic household’s financial wealth was zero.

But

these statistics don’t reveal the growing class stratification that in many ways

cuts across racial boundaries. Alan Wolfe, the director of the Center for

Religion and American Public Life, recently observed in the New York Times that

"the 1990s will be remembered as a time of Reaganism without Reagan."

During the decade, "the incomes of the best-off Americans have risen twice

as fast as those of middle-class Americans." Back in 1980, the average top

corporate executive’s salary was 42 times higher than the median income of a

factory worker. By 1998, the top executives were taking home 419 times more than

factory workers.

Although

Wolfe is not a political progressive, he makes some excellent points about the

growing class hostility of most Americans about the wealthy. "The fact that

Americans hope to become rich does not mean that they admire the rich,"

Wolfe states. Corporate executives’ salaries, stock options and company perks

deeply trouble people "because such rewards have become disconnected from

the efforts that go into earning them." The upper one percent of all U.S.

households has a greater combined net wealth than the bottom ninety-five percent

of all households.

Most

working Americans resent all this, because through their practical experiences,

they know that they are working harder and for longer hours, but their wages are

smaller than a decade ago. Last August, the Economic Policy Institute reported

that in 1997, the median inflation-adjusted earnings of the average worker were

3.1 percent lower than in 1989. Six out of ten U.S. workers earn either the same

or less than they did ten years ago. The Economic Policy Institute also notes

that the typical married couple family in the U.S. worked a total of 247 more

hours in 1996 than in 1989. That is six additional weeks of work for less

income.

The

other dimension of income and class stratification is what is happening within

the working class itself. There is increasingly a two-tiered stratification, a

growing division between working class households whose incomes have held steady

or slightly improved vs. the "working poor," people just above the

poverty level but below the income level that would be a "living

wage." Since the draconian Welfare Act of 1996, growing numbers of children

are being trapped into poverty or near-poverty. In 1996, more than one in five

children were poor, up from 16.4 percent in 1979. The Economic Policy Institute

also notes that 39.9 percent of all African-American children and 40.3 percent

of all Latino children live in poverty today.

The

economic crisis for the poor and working poor can be measured in cities and

states across the country. In New York State, for example, according to a recent

study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, the number of New Yorkers in poverty

increased by one-third since 1989 to 3 million. Twenty-five percent of the

state’s children, and 40 percent of the children in New York City, live in

poverty. For New York State’s working poor, "the median hourly wage fell 6.

3 percent in the 1990s despite a 7.9 percent increase in productivity per

worker." The median wages for New York State’s black and Latino workers

"fell at least one and a half times as much" as for white workers. In

New York City, "the number of working poor families has jumped by 84

percent in the 1990s, more than three times greater than the U.S.

increase." Conversely, the Wall Street bull market has affected only a

small number of households. The top seven percent of New York’s households,

states that Fiscal Policy Institute, "receives 85 percent of all capital

gains."

The

challenges for black politics and the left is that most liberals and Democrats

don’t want to talk about class. After all, it was Clinton who signed the 1996

Welfare Act. Both political parties, in varying degrees, pursue policies that

directly contribute to class stratification and the vast concentrations of

wealth among the upper two or three percent of all U.S. households. One concrete

step we may take to reverse these devastating trends should be to demand an

increase and index in the minimum wage back to its 1968 level, which today would

be $7.65 in inflation-adjusted dollars. We should also support the various

campaigns for a living wage, which is defined as the amount of money necessary

to support a family of four above the poverty level. In the past five years,

living wage initiatives have been approved in 32 cities and counties nationwide,

with over 70 other campaigns being waged currently. Some cities have now begun

to establish a two-tiered living wage. In Detroit, for instance, jobs with

benefits must be offered at a minimum of $8.25 per hour; for jobs without

benefits, the living wage mandated is $10.29 per hour. In San Jose, city

contractors are required to pay workers at least $9.50 per hour, double the

minimum wage.

What

does all this mean to the future of black politics? As powerful as race and

racism are in determining the life chances to African Americans, the politics of

inequality will play a more significant and central role, both inside the black

community, and in its relations with other groups. In short, class matters, and

the battle for economic fairness will in many respects be the most fundamental

factor in the future of African-American politics.

Dr.

Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director

of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University.

"Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 325

publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable’s columns are

also available on the internet at www.manningmarable.net.

 

 

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