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Ai-jen Poo Headshot
George Goehl Headshot

Inequality in America: A Tale of Two Stories

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There are two stories that try to explain the crush of inequality in our country -- two explanations for why inequality is increasing and too many Americans are desperately poor or barely getting by.

One version of the story is that poor people are somehow inferior or lazy compared to the rich. That's what Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy echoed recently when he talked about "the Negro" who he said was "better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things" than "under government subsidy." Bundy's statement builds off the blame-and-shame story of poverty and inequality in America that is told and re-told by those in positions of power to justify our country's economic disparity.

The true story is that millions of Americans work hard every day in a system that is deliberately structured to ensure that the few profit and the many struggle. But inequality renders these millions of people invisible and robbed of the dignity of putting in a day's work to provide for their families.

To create real and lasting solutions to the root causes of inequality, we must bring these voices back into the public spotlight.

We need to hear the story of Barb Kalbach, a fifth-generation farmer in Iowa whose family farm is being driven into the ground by huge corporate factory farms. Those monster farms get the benefit of deregulation and corporate tax breaks, while Barb, her farmhands, and her children suffer.

We need to hear Juana's story too. As a domestic worker she lovingly cares for children and keeps busy households functioning and orderly. Yet she lives in such fear of deportation and being separated from her children that she feels uneasy every time she opens her front door.

Then there is Bobby Tolbert. He's been HIV-positive since 1995. He worked his way out of homeless shelters in New York City to become a peer health educator. Now he's fighting to protect benefits for people with HIV, and in doing so he's fighting for his life, because without access to special medicine he would die.

These stories are not pretty, and they are not clean. But they are commonplace across the nation and true to millions of lives. They reveal that what's at stake is the very survival of millions of people in the US.

Today, the 85 richest people in the world control more wealth than over half of the world's population. A new Gallup poll says 67 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with income and wealth distribution, with independent voters being the most dissatisfied of all. Inequality affects us all and provides an opportunity to bring us together as a nation.

While the media and political firestorm will continue swirling around Cliven Bundy and his fiction, the true stories -- of Barb, Juana, and Bobby and the millions of us who are fighting for our families and dignity -- are the ones we need to amplify in our fight to create an equal America.

Ai-jen Poo is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the leading voice for dignity and fairness for the millions of domestic workers in the United States, most of whom are women. George Goehl is the executive director of National People's Action, a network of metropolitan and statewide membership organizations dedicated to advancing economic and racial justice.