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Great Divide of Income Inequality

The growing gap between rich and poor

Marc H. Morial | 2/5/2014, 10:52 a.m.
Marc H. Morial

“Income inequality” has become the political buzzword of 2014. President Obama has made it a central theme of his second term. Both progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress are making it a focus of this year’s mid-term elections, and leading voices for human rights have called on government and business leaders to take immediate action to close the income gap for the sake of long-term economic and social stability.

Even last week, as the world’s elite – leaders from government, business and non-government organization sectors – gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, the issue of inequality was atop the agenda.

The forum’s Global Risks 2014 report recently revealed that the “chronic gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest citizens is seen as the risk that is most likely to cause serious damage globally in the coming decade.”

Another voice was added to the chorus last week when the British-based anti-poverty organization, Oxfam International, released a report in advance of the Davos gathering, revealing that the richest 85 people in the world control as much wealth as the bottom half of the global population – about 3.5 billion people.

Commenting on the report, Oxfam’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said, "It is staggering that in the 21st century, half of the world's population own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all sit comfortably in a single train carriage. Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table.”

According to the same report, in the U.S., where the gap between rich and poor has grown at a faster rate than any other developed country, the richest one percent of Americans have received 95 percent of the wealth created since 2009 – after the economic crisis – while the bottom 90 percent of Americans have become poorer.

While we are pleased that both sides of the political ping-pong table in the United States are now focusing on the domestic crisis and implications of this global problem, there are disturbing signs that the issue may fall prey to the same kind of ideological posturing that has stymied recent efforts to create jobs, reduce unemployment, raise the minimum wage and help the long-term unemployed.

In fact, as reported by CNNMoney, almost two-thirds of the delegates surveyed during a debate in Davos on Friday said that the widening gap, or what I call The Great Divide, “between rich and poor is having a corrosive effect on U.S. politics.”

For example, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sees the problem not as one of income inequality but of “opportunity inequality” and continues to resist efforts to raise the minimum wage. To be clear, opportunity inequality is alive and thriving in America; but any attempts to separate it from income inequality are divertive and lacking recognition of the correlation between the two. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during a recent visit to Detroit, where unemployment has been above 15 percent for more than a year, said that it would be a “disservice” to the jobless to extend their unemployment benefits beyond the current limit. Further, Sen. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., another potential presidential candidate, has been traveling the country declaring how the government safety net – programs like Social Security, Medicare and Head Start – has “failed miserably.”