Pope Francis and President Obama have recently been speaking out against income inequality. The United States currently has the highest (or worst, depending on how you look at it) income inequality of any developed nation. This bodes poorly for the economy and upward mobility, which is a key tenant of the so-called American Dream. Since before the financial crisis, 99% of Americans have watched their wages stagnate, drop, or have even lost their job altogether, while the 1% enjoys increasingly explosive wage and income boosts.
Pope Francis has been speaking out vociferously against income inequality and the inflated incomes of the super-rich. Using a Twitter account (@Pontifex) and other outlets to lament trickle-down economics and inequality, he said on November 26:
"Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power . . . Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."
"How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"
"Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."
After the predicted right-wing backlash, including the usual talking heads calling the Pope a "Marxist" and a "socialist," the Pope hit back with some more, making a statement on December 12 for the Catholic Church's World Peace Day, where he slammed excessive salaries for the rich while the poor survive on "crumbs."
“The grave financial and economic crises of the present time … have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy. The succession of economic crises should lead to a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles."
President Obama has not been missing in the conversation, but he and Democrats have failed to actually enact public policies that would stave off the issue. On December 4, Obama gave a speech (read full text here) on economic inequality. In it, he touched on some recent themes:
"[Americans] experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today. And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.
I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President. It was at the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office. And I know I’ve raised this issue before, and some will ask why I raise the issue again right now. I do it because the outcomes of the debates we’re having right now -- whether it’s health care, or the budget, or reforming our housing and financial systems -- all these things will have real, practical implications for every American. And I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues over the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real.
It was Abraham Lincoln, a self-described “poor man’s son,” who started a system of land grant colleges all over this country so that any poor man’s son could go learn something new.
When farms gave way to factories, a rich man’s son named Teddy Roosevelt fought for an eight-hour workday, protections for workers, and busted monopolies that kept prices high and wages low.
When millions lived in poverty, FDR fought for Social Security, and insurance for the unemployed, and a minimum wage.
When millions died without health insurance, LBJ fought for Medicare and Medicaid."
In the speech, Obama pointed out that this economic unraveling has been happening since the late '70s. He highlighted the shocking statistics:
"The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income -- it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more. And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country."
While it is clear to see that this burgeoning problem of income inequality is real, it's harder to see what's being done about it. From afar, it looks like not much. Congressional gridlock and inaction doesn't help. But it appears we are reaching some sort of tipping point, a point at which Americans have had enough. Recent quotes by the Pope, President Obama, continued low-wage worker strikes, calls to raise the minimum wage, and access to expanded health care will help. But Democrats and Progressives should continue to fight for a livable wage, a single-payer health care system, stronger worker protections, and higher tax rates on the rich and robust investment in the public sector institutions that, in the past, have created a more economically sound country.