President Obama gave it the good old college try when he virtually implored Congress to take a hard, long look at the surging income inequality gap in America. This was a step to put a partial brake on the widening gap by increasing the minimum wage, and limit slashes on spending programs that aid the poor and lower income workers. But Obama's plea fell on the GOP's deaf ears. House Speaker John Boehner lashed out that whatever poverty and income inequality there is can be blamed on Obama's programs. This was not just the standard bash Obama dig from Boehner. He spoke for the overwhelming majority of Republicans.
In a Pew Research Center survey in March a substantial majority of Republicans flatly said that the economic system is fair to most people. And by a whopping margin, they denied that the income inequality gap was a "big problem." In contrast a big majority of Democrats said just the opposite. Boehner's blast at Obama and Republican's deaf ear on income inequality was a pro forma rehash of the attacks on Obama for the problem.
The numbers tell the grim tale. According to private research reports, the income inequality gap in the country is now the widest since the year before the 1929 stock market crash. That year the top 1 percent of American families grabbed nearly 25 percent of all pretax income. The bottom 90 percent got 50 percent. Now the figures on the income share garnered by the rich and poor are almost identical.
The GOP's blame game against Obama is more than just political oneupsmanship aimed at stymieing Obama's push for a minimum wage boost and more government spending. It's in part aimed at taking the glare off the giant role the GOP played in blowing open the gap, and in greater part to defend its bankrupt remedies.
In the last year of President George W. Bush's administration nearly 40 million persons were in poverty. Two Bush tax giveaways to the corporations and the super rich, billions squandered on a failed and flawed Iraq war, relentless slashes in federal aid programs, the conservative onslaught against state workers and their unions, divestment in urban education and job programs, and a blind eye to the banks dumping of sub-prime loans on poor and the low income that fueled the foreclosure crisis were the direct consequence of Bush's policies and the GOP cheerleading of them.
The GOP has turned this sordid recent history into a dagger to stab at Obama's spending and budget proposals and imply that the big price tag for them has drained money and initiative from the private sector and that's supposedly the cause of chronic poverty. It's an argument that's been repeated endlessly since FDR pumped up government spending in the 1930s to mitigate the worst effects of the Great Depression. The GOP's counter to that is to point to the Reagan years when the economy boomed in the 1980s. But that boom also saw the first widening of the gap between the rich and the poor since the Great Depression.
The bitter truth is that poverty and income inequality have always been a political football. The reason for that is simple. The poor don't have an active and viable political lobby to fight for their interests.
The sole exception to this was a brief moment during the 1960s, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched his Poor People Campaign. However, King was murdered and his dream of uniting the poor quickly fell apart amidst organizational and personal squabbles, as well as disorganization. A small band of anti-poverty groups and organizers did shout, cajole, and actively lobby for a major expansion of anti-poverty programs, funding, and initiatives to reduce poverty in the nation. They attained some success in getting funds and launching a few new programs, but it didn't last. The anti-poverty crusade quickly fell victim to Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War ramp up, the increased shrill attacks from conservatives that the war on poverty was a scam to reward deadbeats and loafers, and the sharp budget cutbacks.
Now, that's slightly changed. Obama has inched poverty back on the nation's table. The hope is that if it stays there long enough and becomes a real focus of national debate this will force congressional Republicans to actually do something other than slam Obama for making the problem worse. That's unlikely. But by making the misery wreaked by the exploding gap between rich and poor an issue of concern, it does assure that other Americans won't turn the same deaf ear to it as the GOP shamefully has.
A final note. Top GOP congressional leaders fell over themselves showering praise on Nelson Mandela. But Mandela also did battle against poverty and income inequality and said so "Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." The GOP turns a deaf ear to those words too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.