What we talk about when we talk about inequality
In a year that has featured increased coverage of rising economic inequality—helped along by President Barack Obama’s call to rebuild the economy from the “middle out,” and New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s campaign focus on a “tale of two cities”—one of the biggest flurries of attention came in late July, when four professors from Harvard and Berkeley released a study (NBER, 7/13) of economic mobility in the United States. Their finding: Someone hoping to lift themselves from the bottom of the income scale into the middle class or above faces much longer odds in certain parts of the country, particularly the Deep South.
As a result, reported David Leonhardt in a front-page story in the New York Times (7/22/13):
On average, fairly poor children in Seattle—those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution—do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children—those who grew up at the 50th percentile—from Atlanta.
The report made headlines across the nation. “Upward Mobility Is Bay Area Challenge,” reported the Tampa Bay Times (7/23/13). “People born poor [in Ohio urban areas] are more likely to stay poor,” wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer (7/23/13). The PBS NewsHour (7/24/13) brought on one of the study’s authors, Harvard economist Raj Chetty, to try to answer the question, “Is the American dream alive, and how does it vary across areas of the U.S.?”
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, meanwhile, devoted two separate segments to the story (8/4/13, 8/18/13). First Zakaria interviewed Chetty—plus self-proclaimed “radical centrist” economist Jeff Sachs, libertarian columnist Megan McArdle and Brookings Institution inequality skeptic Scott Winship—to discuss the study. He then delivered an on-air op-ed that cited Canadian economist Miles Corak as noting that “America spends much less on the education and well-being of poor people, especially poor children, than any other rich country”—though Zakaria also noted that “the U.S. has many more broken families, single parents and dysfunctional domestic arrangements than Canada and Europe.”
The mobility study was indeed important news—though it was the rare story that mentioned that if the ability to rise in economic class is your main criterion, the American dream is far more alive in Denmark and the United Kingdom that anywhere in the United States (Guardian, 1/17/12). But in focusing solely on whether some poor Americans can swap places with those in the middle or upper classes—and pinning the blame for those who can’t on poor education or single moms, things that the Harvard/Berkeley study, which focused solely on the role of regressive state tax systems in decreasing income mobility, didn’t address—media coverage skirted the larger issue: the growing distance between top and bottom earners.
Corporate media took far less notice back in January when another of the NBER study’s authors, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, released a report showing that in the first two years of the economic recovery, the top 1 percent of U.S. earners saw their earnings rise by 11.2 percent, while the other 99 percent saw their incomes fall by 0.4 percent. Three weeks later, the New York Times (2/15/13) reported this in its business section under the headline “Incomes Flat in Recovery, but Not for the 1 Percent.” But that was it for attention to the growing gap between rich and poor—unless you count a much-cited Wall Street Journal article (2/13/13) headlined “What Recession? Americans Regain a Craving for Luxury.”
The mobility story had a lot of appeal to journalists: It was a new finding, and it had the benefit of ranking cities against each other, always a plus for local news editors looking for a hook for their own readers. (For example, news outlets rushed to cover a 2005 Brookings study that listed cities with the highest concentrations of poverty, eager to relay where their own cities ranked, but they ignored the study’s main point, which was that government housing programs had been successful at reducing concentrated poverty—Extra!, 8/06.)
The main attraction, though, was amply spelled out by Zakaria, who began both of his CNN segments, plus a Washington Post op-ed (8/14/13), with variations on the same phrase: “If there’s one issue on which both the left and right agree, it is the crisis of declining mobility. The American dream at its core is that a person, no matter his or her background, can make it here.”
Indeed, “social mobility” has become the preferred term for politicians of all stripes when discussing problems of economic class. For conservatives, lack of mobility conflicts with the premise that anyone can be rewarded for their effort, as when Rep. Paul Ryan (FoxNews.com, 10/24/12) noted: “Upward mobility is the central promise of life in America. But right now, America’s engines of upward mobility aren’t working the way they should.”
President Obama, meanwhile, has couched much of his own critique of poverty and inequality in similar rhetoric, warning (MSNBC.com, 7/29/13), “When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America, that idea that if you work hard, you can make it here.’’
Inequality, by contrast—the fact that 15 percent of Americans are poor, up by a third since the year 2000, while the richest 1 percent earn 19 percent of annual income, the highest in at least a century (AP, 9/10/13)—is a more contentious issue.
Not with the American public: A 2013 Pew poll (5/23/13) found that 74 percent of Americans believe that “the gap between the rich and the poor” is either a “very big” or “moderately big” problem.
But as far as many outlets are concerned, it’s still an open question whether inequality is bad at all—as when PBS (10/26/11) and CNBC (1/8/13) ran investigations into the phenomenon’s “good side.” PBS’s sole expert consulted: Richard Epstein, a libertarian law professor at NYU who insists that holding out the carrot of unfathomed wealth is “a wonderful force for innovation.” (Actual economists have noted that innovation actually appears to have slowed in recent years as concentration of wealth has climbed—NYTimes.com, 2/24/13.)
Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida perhaps inadvertently expressed the resulting dilemma to Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation (CBS, 2/10/13) when he worried about how to frame coverage of the nation’s economic woes: “Can you have a debate about income inequality in the country without it descending into class warfare? I think that’s one of the big questions facing the country.”
It’s a concern that seems to be easing, if only slightly, as inequality numbers continue to flood in. In September, Saez and longtime collaborator Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics released an updated report showing that while average US income rose 6 percent from 2009 through 2012, that was almost entirely absorbed by the top 1 percent of earners, whose incomes leaped by 31 percent during that time.
This sparked several stories, including in the San Francisco Chronicle (9/12/13) and Orlando Sentinel (9/12/13). The New York Times (9/11/13) ran an article on the front page of its business section noting that incomes for the non-affluent have been “weighed down by high unemployment and stagnant wages for many blue- and white-collar workers”—though also describing “a glimmer of good news for the 99 percent…. Mr. Piketty and Mr. Saez show that the incomes of that group stagnated between 2009 and 2011. In 2012, they started growing again—if only by about 1 percent.”
It’s less good news if one instead looks at, say, the bottom 98 percent—that’s everyone making under $350,000 per year—whose wages, according to Saez’s figures, fell by 1.8 percent in real terms during that time, and more than 10 percent over the previous decade. (The top 10 percent saw their incomes rise 17 percent from 2002–2012, and the top 1 percent by 35 percent.) Those numbers, though, didn’t make the Times report.
The other recent moment that sparked coverage of inequality was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Obama noted in his own speech at the Lincoln Memorial (Boston Globe, 8/29/13) that to fight racism, we must fight not just discrimination but inequality as well:
They were there seeking jobs as well as justice, not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? The gap in wealth between races hasn’t lessened, it’s grown.
Most coverage followed Obama’s lead, focusing narrowly on racial disparities without exploring how they relate to the growing overall gap between rich and poor. “Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963,” wrote the Washington Post (8/28/13), citing as an example the fact that the poverty rate for blacks remains triple that for whites. And while it did mention the 1963 march’s call for a raise in the minimum wage to $2 an hour—the equivalent of $15.29 an hour today—the main focus remained on how to get black Americans on par with whites, not with addressing the persistence of income inequality in general.
Addressing not just African-American hardship but overall poverty, though, is an issue that likely would have been raised by King himself—if not the King of 1963, then certainly the King of 1967, who launched the Poor People’s Campaign to seek an economic bill of rights that would include housing and a guaranteed annual income for all. As the Atlantic (8/28/13) noted, King had decided that battling racism without conquering economic inequality—not just between black and white, but between rich and poor overall—was not only futile, but immoral:
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.
It’s a sentiment that, the Atlantic’s article aside, remained absent from march anniversary coverage. But then, saying that accepting the continued existence of poverty is the moral equivalent of cannibalism isn’t the kind of thing that’s likely to get bipartisan support.