What a difference six months makes in national discourse. The federal deficit continues to deepen.  Instead of dominating headlines, however, deficit reduction has been overshadowed by widening reports of income inequality and its policy implications in the United States.  With the introduction of Charles Murry’s book, Coming Apart, the debate has extended beyond slogans from occupy protesters and Republican presidential candidates into the mainstream media. It’s an old debate, but one worth revisiting.

            For anyone who doubts the existence of a widening income gap, there is evidence a plenty that America’s most cherished belief in the dream that anyone can make it is evaporating.  Not only does the U.S. fall behind most other advanced countries in the rate of upward mobility, there has been a colossal transfer of wealth from the bottom of the income pyramid to the top. According to Andrew Hacker, writing in the February 23, 2012 New York Review of Books, since 1985, the lower 60% of households have lost $4 trillion dollars, most of it making its way to the top 5% of earners. In Hacker’s graphic phrase, “Imagine a giant vacuum cleaner looming over America’s economy, drawing dollars from its bottom to its upper tiers.”

            The New York Times for February 10 reports one reason for the growing divide: the education gap that has grown by 50% since 1985 between rich and poor college students.  For those still able to make it to college, Hacker reports, the burden of long-term debt for middle and lower income students has been also growing dramatically.  For those who don’t get to college, future prospects are grim. As Paul Krugman reports February 10th, adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23% since 1973. Only 29% of those graduates working in the private sector have health benefits, compared to 65% in 1980.

            Murry thus points to a real problem, which has deep social as well as political implications. Not surprisingly, the Tea Party has attracted the support of many white males with limited education, whom Murray singles out as those most falling behind. Even though a Times report February 12th indicates that these are the same people who are increasingly reliant on a federal safety net, that doesn’t stop them from buying into GOP efforts to drastically cut domestic programs.

            It’s Murry’s contention—and this is an old saw among conservative critics—that the plight of the new white poor lies in the behavioral changes induced in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly sexual promiscuity and a decline in a work ethic that once helped generations of Americans lift themselves out of poverty.  For a full exposition of the pernicious effect of the 1960s one need look no further than Roger Kimball’s 2000 book The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America.  The liberal response to such polemics is normally to argue, “it’s the economy, stupid,” that self-destructive behavior follows from rather than leads to diminished economic opportunity.

            The culture of poverty argument has been going for a long time and won’t be settled any time soon.  What’s important to recognize right away is that America has a huge structural problem. When we talk about government programs, whether expanding them or cutting them, we have to ask what their effect would be on overcoming income inequality. This does not necessarily mean social engineering or advancing the welfare of any particular racial or ethnic group, as conservatives have been so quick to charge. What it means is that if the tax code is skewed, of if subsidies advance corporate welfare at the expense of social welfare, then reformers need to demonstrate how their actions would make us a stronger and fairer nation. One can’t hope for too much serious action in the current charged political atmosphere, but at least the conversation has begun. We all ought to be taking part in it.              

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