ALONG THE COLOR LINE: The Politics of Inequality

The fundamental issue that will define U.S. politics in the first decade of the twenty-first century is the spiraling growth of inequality in American life. One might respond that "inequality" is not new in U.S. society, and has always existed. What is "new" is the degree of income stratification and class polarization we are now experiencing, which is really unlike anything since the Robber Barons of the nineteenth century's Gilded Era.Most Americans know that household income levels are sharply stratified by race. For example, in 1998, the median household income for African Americans was $25, 351, only 60 percent of the median white household income of $42, 439. According to a recent report by United For a Fair Economy, "Shifting Fortunes," the average white household in 1995 had $18,000 in financial wealth (net worth minus equity in owner-occupied housing). By contrast, the average African American household possessed a grand total of two hundred dollars. The typical Hispanic household's financial wealth was zero.But these statistics don't reveal the growing class stratification that in many ways cuts across racial boundaries. Alan Wolfe, the director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life, recently observed in the New York Times that "the 1990s will be remembered as a time of Reaganism without Reagan." During the decade, "the incomes of the best-off Americans have risen twice as fast as those of middle-class Americans." Back in 1980, the average top corporate executive's salary was 42 times higher than the median income of a factory worker. By 1998, the top executives were taking home 419 times more than factory workers.Although Wolfe is not a political progressive, he makes some excellent points about the growing class hostility of most Americans about the wealthy. "The fact that Americans hope to become rich does not mean that they admire the rich," Wolfe states. Corporate executives' salaries, stock options and company perks deeply trouble people "because such rewards have become disconnected from the efforts that go into earning them." The upper one percent of all U.S. households has a greater combined net wealth than the bottom ninety-five percent of all households.Most working Americans resent all this, because through their practical experiences, they know that they are working harder and for longer hours, but their wages are smaller than a decade ago. Last August, the Economic Policy Institute reported that in 1997, the median inflation-adjusted earnings of the average worker were 3.1 percent lower than in 1989. Six out of ten U.S. workers earn either the same or less than they did ten years ago. The Economic Policy Institute also notes that the typical married couple family in the U.S. worked a total of 247 more hours in 1996 than in 1989. That is six additional weeks of work for less income.The other dimension of income and class stratification is what is happening within the working class itself. There is increasingly a two-tiered stratification, a growing division between working class households whose incomes have held steady or slightly improved vs. the "working poor," people just above the poverty level but below the income level that would be a "living wage." Since the draconian Welfare Act of 1996, growing numbers of children are being trapped into poverty or near-poverty. In 1996, more than one in five children were poor, up from 16.4 percent in 1979. The Economic Policy Institute also notes that 39.9 percent of all African-American children and 40.3 percent of all Latino children live in poverty today.The economic crisis for the poor and working poor can be measured in cities and states across the country. In New York State, for example, according to a recent study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, the number of New Yorkers in poverty increased by one-third since 1989 to 3 million. Twenty-five percent of the state's children, and 40 percent of the children in New York City, live in poverty. For New York State's working poor, "the median hourly wage fell 6. 3 percent in the 1990s despite a 7.9 percent increase in productivity per worker." The median wages for New York State's black and Latino workers "fell at least one and a half times as much" as for white workers. In New York City, "the number of working poor families has jumped by 84 percent in the 1990s, more than three times greater than the U.S. increase." Conversely, the Wall Street bull market has affected only a small number of households.The top seven percent of New York's households, states that Fiscal Policy Institute, "receives 85 percent of all capital gains."The challenges for black politics and the left is that most liberals and Democrats don't want to talk about class. After all, it was Clinton who signed the 1996 Welfare Act. Both political parties, in varying degrees, pursue policies that directly contribute to class stratification and the vast concentrations of wealth among the upper two or three percent of all U.S. households. One concrete step we may take to reverse these devastating trends should be to demand an increase and index in the minimum wage back to its 1968 level, which today would be $7.65 in inflation-adjusted dollars. We should also support the various campaigns for a living wage, which is defined as the amount of money necessary to support a family of four above the poverty level. In the past five years, living wage initiatives have been approved in 32 cities and counties nationwide, with over 70 other campaigns being waged currently. Some cities have now begun to establish a two-tiered living wage. In Detroit, for instance, jobs with benefits must be offered at a minimum of $8.25 per hour; for jobs without benefits, the living wage mandated is $10.29 per hour. In San Jose, city contractors are required to pay workers at least $9.50 per hour, double the minimum wage.What does all this mean to the future of black politics? As powerful as race and racism are in determining the life chances to African Americans, the politics of inequality will play a more significant and central role, both inside the black community, and in its relations with other groups. In short, class matters, and the battle for economic fairness will in many respects be the most fundamental factor in the future of African-American politics.

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