How Inequality Hurts

The Rich and the Rest of Us

Can we help the poor without confronting the wealth of the super-rich? America’s top progressive magazine has just published a special issue that offers an answer.

Last year, an all-star cast of veteran advocates for low-income people came together, in a new national Half in Ten coalition, with one simple goal: to cut poverty in the United States by 50 percent over the next decade. Is a goal that ambitious, in today’s globalized economy, even remotely possible? Can a major nation cut poverty in half in just ten years?

Interestingly, in 1999, Britain’s Tony Blair set out to try. Blair pledged an all-out effort by his Labor Party government to slice child poverty in the UK in half by 2010. Last week, an official UK agency released figures on how well that effort is going. The answer: not well at all. Over the last two years, the UK has not made any progress toward meeting Tony Blair’s original child poverty targets. The government’s pledge to halve child poverty by 2010, one British newspaper is noting, sits “in tatters.”

Why has the governing British Labor Party, now led by prime minister Gordon Brown, failed so miserably? Brown and Blair have made a tragic political blunder. In the UK, over the past dozen years, the two have repeatedly refused to do anything that would seriously inconvenience their nation’s rich. Taking any such step, Blair and Brown have argued, makes no sense in the modern world. A nation, they contend, can fight the absence of wealth, or poverty, without confronting wealth’s concentration.

Nation coverBlair and Brown have never strayed from that line. They’ve let the UK ultra-rich avoid taxes and balloon their fortunes and power. Now the UK poor, as the latest official British government statistics make clear, are paying the price.

Can anti-poverty advocates in the United States avoid the same fate? That remains to be seen. In the United States, as in the UK, many top politicos see any efforts to limit grand concentrations of wealth as a divisive distraction, a political suicide mission that would only alienate America’s rich and prevent the building of an anti-poverty consensus and commitment.

Last week, America’s top progressive journal directly challenged that perspective, with a special issue devoted to extreme inequality. The issue’s basic message? John Cavanagh and Chuck Collins, veteran activists from the Institute for Policy Studies, spell that out in the issue’s introduction.

“We will never achieve social and economic justice for those at the bottom of our economic pyramid,” they note, “until we tackle wealth concentration at the top.”

The rest of this Nation issue — with articles by the likes of Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the best-selling anti-poverty book Nickel and Dimed — explains why.

The issue does that explaining with statistics that show just how clearly the don’t-tax-the-rich zeitgeist of the past 30 years has undermined America’s capacity to invest in real opportunity for all Americans. But the issue also gets at the impact concentrated wealth makes on a more personal level, showing, for instance, how a billionaire hedge fund kingpin like New York’s Bruce Kovner goes about translating his wealth into the political muscle that year after year frustrates legislation to help America’s working poor.

In discussions about concentrated wealth, the wealthy can sometimes come across as so powerful that any attempt to rein them in can seem futile. This Nation special issue doesn’t make that mistake. Indeed, a historical hopefulness runs throughout the issue’s pages, with frequent references to the mid 20th century campaigns that ended America’s original Gilded Age.

Long-time CEO pay critic Sarah Anderson and Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati capture that hopeful spirit in their contribution to the special issue, a look at a dozen policy approaches “that can help slice America’s superwealthy down to democratic size.”

Can an offensive against our plutocracy, they ask, actually succeed?

“Why not?” they answer. “Our forebears faced a plutocracy more entrenched than ours. They beat that plutocracy back. Our turn.”

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