Now, the premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story. And while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity—the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit. And with every chapter we’ve added to that story, we’ve worked hard to put those words into practice.
It was Abraham Lincoln, a self-described “poor man’s son,” who started a system of land grant colleges all over this country so that any poor man’s son could go learn something new.
When farms gave way to factories, a rich man’s son named Teddy Roosevelt fought for an eight-hour workday, protections for workers, and busted monopolies that kept prices high and wages low.
When millions lived in poverty, FDR fought for Social Security, and insurance for the unemployed, and a minimum wage.
When millions died without health insurance, LBJ fought for Medicare and Medicaid.
Together, we forged a New Deal, declared a War on Poverty in a great society. We built a ladder of opportunity to climb, and stretched out a safety net beneath so that if we fell, it wouldn’t be too far, and we could bounce back. And as a result, America built the largest middle class the world has ever known. And for the three decades after World War II, it was the engine of our prosperity.
Now, we can’t look at the past through rose-colored glasses. The economy didn’t always work for everyone. Racial discrimination locked millions out of poverty—or out of opportunity. Women were too often confined to a handful of often poorly paid professions. And it was only through painstaking struggle that more women, and minorities, and Americans with disabilities began to win the right to more fairly and fully participate in the economy.
Nevertheless, during the post-World War II years, the economic ground felt stable and secure for most Americans, and the future looked brighter than the past. And for some, that meant following in your old man’s footsteps at the local plant, and you knew that a blue-collar job would let you buy a home, and a car, maybe a vacation once in a while, health care, a reliable pension. For others, it meant going to college—in some cases, maybe the first in your family to go to college. And it meant graduating without taking on loads of debt, and being able to count on advancement through a vibrant job market.
Now, it’s true that those at the top, even in those years, claimed a much larger share of income than the rest: The top 10 percent consistently took home about one-third of our national income. But that kind of inequality took place in a dynamic market economy where everyone’s wages and incomes were growing. And because of upward mobility, the guy on the factory floor could picture his kid running the company some day.
But starting in the late ‘70s, this social compact began to unravel. Technology made it easier for companies to do more with less, eliminating certain job occupations. A more competitive world lets companies ship jobs anywhere. And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits.
As values of community broke down, and competitive pressure increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage. As a trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither. And for a certain period of time, we could ignore this weakening economic foundation, in part because more families were relying on two earners as women entered the workforce. We took on more debt financed by a juiced-up housing market. But when the music stopped, and the crisis hit, millions of families were stripped of whatever cushion they had left.
And the result is an economy that’s become profoundly unequal, and families that are more insecure. I’ll just give you a few statistics. Since 1979, when I graduated from high school, our productivity is up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than eight percent. Since 1979, our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to a fortunate few.
The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income—it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more. And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country.
So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed. In fact, this trend toward growing inequality is not unique to America’s market economy. Across the developed world, inequality has increased. Some of you may have seen just last week, the Pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. “How can it be,” he wrote, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
But this increasing inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people. Understand we’ve never begrudged success in America. We aspire to it. We admire folks who start new businesses, create jobs, and invent the products that enrich our lives. And we expect them to be rewarded handsomely for it. In fact, we've often accepted more income inequality than many other nations for one big reason—because we were convinced that America is a place where even if you’re born with nothing, with a little hard work you can improve your own situation over time and build something better to leave your kids. As Lincoln once said, “While we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.”
The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is. In fact, statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, but that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies—countries like Canada or Germany or France. They have greater mobility than we do, not less.
The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough. But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action. We are a better country than this.
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