U.S. continues to overlook income inequality

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, July 7, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Fomenting class warfare is a crime I’ve been charged with lately. What I did to provoke the charge is write columns deploring the growing gap between rich and poor Americans. To my critics, it seems, the problem lies not in the fact of increasing inequality, but in the noticing of it.

This is natural. If you are not experiencing difficulty, you much prefer that everyone enjoy the status quo along with you. A happy dominating husband is unlikely to thrill to his wife’s awakening spirit of liberation. A comfortable white majority will have no trouble believing everyone was better off when blacks were less demanding.

Besides, anyone harping on a widening wage gap can easily be dismissed as envious.

What’s surprising is the fierce determination with which people want to believe that the highest-paid in our society earn every last dime, that the lowest-paid deserve not a cent more, and that — if the chasm is growing larger — then this must be appropriate, too. And plenty of these people, it would seem, are not among the wealthy.

I thought I could pull a few heartstrings among those unconverted to my view if I dwelt on certain occupations: police work, firefighting, teaching. If these pillars of the society are falling ever farther behind, something must be amiss. Right?

Wrong. It doesn’t take much education to be a cop, say my respondents. Those CEOs had to work hard to get where they are, and they earn those huge salaries every day. The fact that they earn them even when they fail, it seems, can be ignored. Putting your life on the line or investing yourself in the next generation just doesn’t compare.

People who believe we earn exactly what we deserve have to ignore a lot. Like how much more the top earns today, compared to the apparently ever more undeserving bottom. Income disparity is at its greatest point since 1947, when we began keeping records, according to the research group, United for a Fair Economy. It is "the largest such gap among 18 industrialized nations," says the recent book, "The Social Health of the Nation."

Commentators repeatedly say no one really cares about income inequality. "Even some passionate advocates of equality have conceded that this is not an overwhelming concern of the general public," wrote Thomas Sowell in "The Quest for Cosmic Justice."

But I think the very proliferation in charges of class-warfare provocation shows something’s afoot. The status-quo lovers are getting nervous. An Internet check of a standard set of news sources, over the same six-month period in each of the past five years, shows a steady increase in the use of the phrase "class warfare," from 277 references in 1996-97 to 934 references during the past six months.

I like to believe the growing evidence of income inequality is sinking in. Take the recent survey showing that teachers in this country earn less, compared to our average national income, than teachers in other industrialized countries — though our teachers spend more hours in the classroom. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed, in the same survey, that U.S. teacher pay has slipped recently. In 1994, a veteran teacher earned 1.2 times the average per capita income. In 1999, the salary had slid below the national average. In South Korea, by comparison, teachers earn 2.5 times the national average pay.

A poll last month from the Pew Research Center for the People &the Press does indeed indicate the public is increasingly aware of wealth and income disparities. Forty-four percent of respondents said America is divided between the haves and have-nots, compared with 26 percent in 1988.

After one of my previous warfare-fomenting columns, a North Carolina reader responded: "Like you, I am amazed that working people aren’t carrying pitchforks and torches to the local manor houses all across America. Of course I would think that: I’m one of those falling-behind teachers. But my closest friend (also my dentist) came from a blue-collar childhood and made a prosperous life with hard work, perseverance, grit, etc., and he feels exactly the same way.

"Most of his patients in this little Appalachian mountain town are the people he grew up with — factory workers, mechanics, truck drivers, day care workers — and he is furious that they are worse off now than when they were all kids together."

I like to think of this dentist, worrying away over the unfairness of income inequality. He doesn’t sound warlike to me. Just fair-minded — and observant.

Geneva Overholser can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or overholserg@washpost.com.

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