The Urgency of Inequality

Source: Columbiatribune.com
More and more people are talking about our nation’s inequality, but few seem to know what to do about it.

A recent American Community Survey report distributed by the Census Bureau showed that median household incomes for Americans remain flat, and in fact Americans earn less than they did 25 years ago.  This was effectively summed up in a New York Times article published yesterday:

For all but the most highly educated and affluent Americans, incomes have stagnated, or worse, for more than a decade. The census report found that median household income, adjusted for inflation, was $51,017 in 2012, down about 9 percent from an inflation-adjusted peak of $56,080 in 1999, mostly as a result of the longest and most damaging recession since the Depression. Most people have had no gains since the economy hit bottom in 2009.

Clearly, what gains have been made in income have occurred at the upper brackets, creating more income inequality.  This article at New Geography highlights the growing inequality at the metropolitan area level, and shows that many metros that on the surface appear to be recovering from the Great Recession are simply those with growing inequality — large gains at the top of the spectrum.  The more equal metro areas are the ones that are less well off.  The issue of inequality played a prominent role in the New York City mayoral primary earlier this month, with populist Bill de Blasio winning the primary on a platform of uniting the “two New York Citys”.

The growing sense that inequality will have a greater impact on future elections and politics is causing some consternation among politically conservative ranks, illustrated by Joel Kotkin on his New Geography site:

With de Blasio likely to be the next mayor, we can expect the bleeding to get worse. Many business people rightly fear a de Blasio’s administration will raise taxes in order to meet public employee demands. Faced with financial shortfalls, de Blasio’s response, notes historian Fred Siegel, is likely to be similar to that of his hero, former Mayor David Dinkins, who consistently gave in to public unions and raises taxes.

But it’s not enough to dismiss de Blasio as a throwback. His victory reveals the depth of a profound social crisis beneath the glitz and glitter of Bloomberg’s luxury city. Similar class and geographic divisions can be seen throughout the country but inequality seems most egregious in New York. A recent analysis of inequality by University of Washington demographer Richard Morrill found New York to be the least egalitarian big metro area in America.

The state of the American economy has made our current times more confusing for nearly everyone in the country, but even moreso for those on the right side of the political spectrum.  After a generation of arguing that conservative middle class suburbs would dominate the political environment at the local, metro, state and national levels for the long term, things are becoming inverted.  Gains have been made in cities, from drastically reduced crime to redevelopment and revitalization that is leading to stronger urban neighborhoods.  However, those gains have been uneven, and we are now starting to see political reactions to the unevenness.

One side of the political spectrum, having a long-standing connection with urban residents and an understanding of urban issues, is well-positioned to develop an appropriate response to growing inequality.  Another side of the political spectrum, seeing its influence wane where it once was strongest and sensing an opportunity to seize on the urgency of inequality, is struggling to find its way.

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