Editorial: Unsticking America


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It’s becoming a widely agreed upon fact that America is stuck. The economy is getting better for some, but the real unemployment rate that includes people who gave up on looking for work has barely improved since the height of the recession. The national political system is going nowhere fast. House Republicans do something wrong and lose public favor. Then when President Obama has a chance to make some progress, he invariably slips up and loses all his political capital, and the cycle repeats over and over again.

Much of the dysfunction, pessimism, and unrest that plagues the United States today relates to the growing income gap between rich and poor.

On Tuesday evening, the University of Iowa Public Policy Center sponsored a screening of Inequality for All, a documentary that explored the causes and consequences of the growing income gap in the United States. It was created by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who Skyped into Macbride Hall Auditorium and spoke briefly about the film and the issues surrounding it. After the movie, a panel of local experts from Iowa City and the University of Iowa discussed the nature of growing inequality in the United States.

By any reasonable measure, it is becoming far too difficult for people on the lower end of the income distribution to climb into the ranks of the middle class and above. If Americans truly believe in social mobility and the American Dream, then there is no choice but to take reasonable policy measures to reduce income inequality.

Reich’s documentary often referenced a chart showing income inequality today is about where it was right before the stock-market crash that preceded the Great Depression. The graph overlaid almost perfectly with the image of a suspension bridge, with a peak on one end declining to extremely low levels, before rising back up to where it was before.

But, of course, there is room for debate on what, exactly, is causing the growing income divide.

“I think [Reich] really overstates the impact of economic change and globalization,” said Colin Gordon, UI history professor and senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project. “There are other rich industrialized countries that globalize and face economic change, but they don’t have the same marked inequality, so I would encourage people to put the emphasis on political change.”

Often in discussions on income inequality, accusations of socialist sympathies start flying, and it automatically shuts down any sort of intelligent or meaningful conversation. But regardless of politics and ideology, the rich and the poor have been growing further apart for decades, and that widening gap has major consequences for the United States.

UI sociology Professor Kevin Leicht, the director of the Iowa Social Science Research Center, said people used to have a general idea of how they could get ahead in life, but they’re increasingly finding out that just working hard isn’t necessarily effective anymore.

“They’ve played by the rules as they’ve been defined,and they’re not getting ahead,” he said.

What we need first, before the problems of inequality can be addressed, is a mutual understanding of inequality in America.

Sociology Assistant Professor Sarah Bruch said the best thing for anyone interested in income inequality to do is to learn more about the issue.

“If you care at all, the thing to do is to actually become more informed about what’s going on so that you can understand how these issues are related to each other.”

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