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The Middle Class Faces Extinction—So Does the American Dream

Income inequality is now as high as it's been since the Great Depression, and the middle class is nearly extinct.

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A central feature of the President’s annual State of the Union address on February 11 was its call to “grow the economy from the middle out,” to “reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class.” In his call for more active government to reduce inequality — from a 25 percent hike in the minimum wage to higher taxes on the rich — Obama was adding some meat to his earlier call “to restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share.” Yet, despite a succession of lofty speeches, the best evidence is that since 2008, growth has continued to be very unevenly shared. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have shown that over nine tenths of growth in 2010 was captured by the top one percent. This is in stark contrast to the 1930s, when the big gainers from recovery were most ordinary Americans and the big losers were the superrich.

Obama’s program for change fails to match the radicalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s or that of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty three decades later. Of course, creating a more equal America is hardly a cakewalk. The United States has rarely been more divided on the politics of change. Before Congressman Paul Ryan became Mitt Romney’s controversial running mate, he had blasted Obama’s proposed (and modest) tax measures on the rich as “class warfare.” Other global leaders seem equally disempowered in the face of the might of a global billionaire class determined to preserve its privileges, muscle, and wealth.

But unless Obama can find a way of breaking the firewalls created by the new plutocrats to protect their wealth from economic collapse and political interference, the likelihood is that the American middle class will go on shrinking, the American dream will further erode, and the nation’s economy will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis.

Stewart Lansley is a visiting fellow at Bristol University in the UK and the author of The Cost of Inequality: Why Economic Equality is Essential for Recovery.