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Jerry Lanson Headshot

A Tale of Two Americas

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The reports made headlines the same day, serving as one more dramatic sign that America's working public is heading in two diametrically opposed directions.

"The Rich Get Richer Through the Recovery," read The New York Times' headline, reporting on the findings of two prominent economists. On its web site, meanwhile, The Washington Post published the findings of a study out of Ohio State University that found American families are on "divergent paths." The paper's headline stripped out the academese: "Children suffer from growing economic inequality among families since recession," it read.

Two studies. Two views of America's gaping and widening economic divide. The storyline is certainly not new. But it is ever-more urgent. For even as the chasm between rich and poor grows wider, the Republican-controlled House next week stands poised to pass cuts in the federal allotment for food stamps relied on today by 47 million Americans, more than one in seven.

As more selfish Americans seem to relish trampling the weak while bubbly flows by the magnum in corporate boardrooms, the threads of our social order continue to unravel.

The Times story on the rich gave these stark statistics:

  • Since the economy bottomed out, $95 of every $100 in increased income has gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. The fat cats, in short, have grown fatter.
  • This same group -- the wealthiest 1 in 100 Americans -- earned 22.5 percent of all U.S. income in 2012. That is nearly $1 of every $4, "one of the highest levels on record since 1913, when the government instituted an income tax," the paper reported.
  • The top 10 percent of wage earners, meanwhile, was paid more than 50 percent of the country's total income in 2012, "the highest level recorded since the government began collecting the relevant data a century ago," The Times said.

It doesn't take long to find the other side of the tracks -- away from the McMansions replacing teardowns in wealthy suburbs from coast to coast. Because the other side is where the vast majority of Americans live. That's not just the single moms, the high school dropouts, the immigrant families struggling to get a toehold in a new country. It's the laid-off 50-somethings who've dropped out the job market entirely, the debt-laden college graduates who've moved back home with mom and dad because they can't afford the rent anywhere else. In many cases, it's the very Americans who continue to vote for congressional lackeys of the riches' lobbyists who wring their hands about the need to balance budgets but forget to consider that taxing those who plant their riches offshore might help do just that.

Class and race and education sharpen the contrasts between the two Americas, The Post noted in reporting on the Ohio State study. And here, too, the divides are getting worse. Warned the paper: "American families are becoming increasingly polarized along race, class and educational lines ... a sign of growing economic inequality."

The study is based the researchers' analysis of census data from 2000 to 2010.

"The gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the children who excel and who lag behind, grew larger than ever in the 2000s," author Zhenchao Qian told The Post.

And yet talk of taxing the rich and super rich has all but disappeared as the Tea Party onslaught on the poor ratchets up another notch.

"The gap between the society's meritocratic ideology and its increasingly oligarchic reality is having a deeply demoralizing effect," columnist Paul Krugman writes in Friday's New York Times. "... This society claims to reward the best and brightest regardless of family background. In practice, however, the children of the wealthy benefit from opportunities and connections unavailable to children of the middle and working classes."

So what will it be? Will we all continue to believe the charade that we too might win the lottery? Will we line the ropes and runways, crane our necks for a glimpse of the titans of industry, sports and celebrity in the hope that their glitter might somehow rub off? Will we blame each other, or simply "the other," whomever that group might be?

Or will we wake from a decades-long slumber of rising economic inequality and elect someone -- anyone -- willing to say, "enough?" It's been a half century since another great march on Washington in search of equality. Perhaps it's time to rattle the rafters of all those fancy white buildings there once again.