A growing number of Americans work hard but arent getting their basic needs met but 2020 candidates seem poised to tackle economic inequality
Jimmy Wilson, a 49-year-old cook who works at a Detroit bar, was sitting outside on his break and fuming.
This doesnt affect me at all, he said, speaking about the televised August Democratic 2020 presidential candidates debate, which had been streaming on the bars TVs. I still have to go to work in the morning. I still have to pay taxes.
Wilsons neighborhood, Corktown, has been flourishing recently, attracting new shops and townhouses. But he worries that rising prices and new arrivals might push him out of what has historically been a working-class community.
Hes also angry that he labors six days a week and doesnt have more to show for it. I should have the same opportunity that a kid that grew up in Bloomfield Hills has, says Wilson, referring to an affluent Detroit suburb.
Most political observers agree that it will take far more than a presidential election to reverse income inequality in the US. But Donald Trumps 2016 election victory exposed a trend that has been in the works since the 1970s and is now at crisis point.
The current crop of Democratic presidential candidates, even the moderate frontrunner Joe Biden, is pushing policy proposals aimed squarely at Americas Jimmy Wilsons, those who work hard but feel they are not getting their fair share of the pie. And, amid Gatsby-era levels of economic inequality, there are more of them than ever.
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Progressive Democratic candidates including the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren argue that a more transformative economic program is needed to address the daily struggles of Americans and that such policy proposals can offer up a winning strategy in the high-stakes battle to prevent Trump from securing a second term in the November 2020 election.
On the policy menu of some of the top-tier candidates are populist economic proposals that would have been considered beyond radical only four years ago: a wealth tax, breaking up the big banks, tuition-free college and Medicare for All a new system that would give all Americans access to government-run healthcare. These are all signs of the Democratic partys tilt leftward, and are all measures that would go some way to redressing the balance between the 1% and the 99%.
But does it signal that the US is finally ready to tackle economic inequality? If Americans are better off than they were a decade ago, it doesnt always feel that way.
The recovery from the Great Recession of the late 00s has been slow and uneven, with low-income Americans many of them Latino, like Wilson, or African American, like Detroit auto worker Steve Jennings experiencing fewer of the benefits. As a group, minority Americans suffer from a staggering wealth gap with white people that leaves them little to fall back on.
Jennings earns $13.75 an hour as a materials handler at Kace Logistics, a company that prepares auto parts for assembly. Its a job that leaves him sweating even in winter. Hes been there six years and earns $3 an hour less than he did at a previous job, which he says he left after an injury there.
When Jennings goes to the doctor, he must first pay a co-payment of $50 almost every visit, even though employees at his firm are represented by the United Auto Workers. Youre not paying me enough to be buying the cars that Im making, says Jennings, who drives a 1997 Oldsmobile Aurora.
Things were different for his parents. Even with his fathers single income, We never went without anything, he says.
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Jennings lament touches on a reality felt across the country. Economic mobility is on the decline, according to a Harvard team of researchers led by economist Raj Chetty.
More than 90% of children who were born in 1940 grew up to earn more than their parents. Only 50% of children born 40 years later will go on to earn more than their parents. But the top 1% is doing better than fine: the average CEO pulled in 312 times as much as the average worker in 2017, up from 20 times as much in 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The rise in economic inequality is a global phenomenon. But it is more extreme in the US, where social mobility has been shown to be lower than in other industrialized nations, and where the safety net is weaker and poverty more severe. Even though the US spends more per capita on healthcare, the system covers fewer people and produces worse outcomes, including lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality rates.
If the United States had experienced the same decline in infant deaths as have other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states since 1960, 300,000 fewer babies would have died over the course of 50 years, according to a recent report.
Moreover, the US has seen life expectancy drop during the past three years, the longest consecutive decrease since a period that included the first world war and a concurrent flu pandemic. The grim combination of a rising suicide rate, especially in rural areas, and an epidemic of drug overdoses deserve the blame, say experts, but so may accelerating economic inequality. At the same time, the gap between the life expectancy of the wealthy and everyone else has been widening, according to a 2016 study by Chetty published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Tackling economic inequality and its potentially lethal effects will require a one-two punch, says Steph Sterling, vice-president for advocacy and policy at the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal, DC-based thinktank. That requires putting a check on increasingly powerful mega-corporations the Amazons, ExxonMobils and Walmarts and expanding governments role where markets fail to provide for the public good.
Sanders and Warren have in different ways taken that pugilistic approach. Warren has produced a range of policy initiatives including putting workers on corporate boards, enacting a wealth tax and antitrust legislation that are intended to address economic and racial inequality and to curb corporate power.
For years Sanders has made himself Wall Streets nemesis, but whereas Warrens policies are looking to remake Americas capitalist system, Sanders is looking to revolutionise it. Like Warren, he proposes breaking up the large banks, and he wants to hike the estate tax. He has been the leader in promoting Medicare for All and free college, ideas he regularly points out were considered outside the mainstream until only recently.
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Sanders and Warren have company in the form of other Democratic 2020 candidates who have tacked left. Like many others, Senator Kamala Harris advocates rolling back the Republicans 2017 tax cuts and providing tax breaks to the poor and middle class. Other candidates have supported a federal jobs guarantee in distressed areas and backed the Green New Deal, a radical resolution that yokes the creation of high-paying jobs to a plan to address the climate crisis.
But a potentially disruptive reform agenda requires broad public support. Americans are legendary for their individualist streak and, in recent history, for their distrust of the federal government. Polls, however, also show a country that is wary of the size and influence of corporations, and in which large majorities including low-income Republicans support increasing the federal minimum wage to $15.
Whats more, support for labor unions is at a 15-year high.
Still, with membership about half of what it was in 1983 (the first year for which comparable union data are available), there are simply fewer work boots on the ground to push for more egalitarian economic policies.
Maintaining public support for a reform agenda is not the only roadblock for tackling inequality. As Democratic 2020 candidate Pete Buttigieg, who has vaulted from a relatively unknown figure to an almost top-tier candidate, told the packed and cheering Avalon nightclub in Hollywood last summer, Were not the democracy we think we are. Buttigieg singled out the pernicious effects of gerrymandering and voter suppression that allows US politicians to pick voters and not the other way around.
There are other, less visible challenges to enacting a major legislative agenda. The structure of American political institutions, with the division of political power and strong federalism, is notorious for giving opponents many ways to stop major change.
And corporate lobbyists power and numbers have grown exponentially in recent decades. Even in earlier times, the federal government has often refrained from tackling economic problems. After the passage of the first state minimum wage, nearly three decades passed before adoption of a national minimum wage in 1938.
It does take a long time for this [reform] process to work its way up to the federal level, and sometimes it takes a disaster for big policy changes to actually be made, says William Franko, a political scientist at West Virginia University and co-author of The New Economic Populism.
But there is hope. A lot could come of this moment, says Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a national network of women of color, which sponsored the first town hall for Democratic presidential candidates.