According to the same report, in the U.S., where the gap between rich and poor has grown at a faster rate than any other developed country, the richest 1 percent of Americans have received 95 percent of the wealth created since 2009—after the economic crisis—while the bottom 90 percent of Americans have become poorer.
While we are pleased that both sides of the political ping-pong table in the United States are now focusing on the domestic crisis and implications of this global problem, there are disturbing signs that the issue may fall prey to the same kind of ideological posturing that has stymied recent efforts to create jobs, reduce unemployment, raise the minimum wage and help the long-term unemployed. In fact, as reported by CNNMoney, almost two-thirds of the delegates surveyed during a debate in Davos on Friday said that the widening gap, or what I call The Great Divide, “between rich and poor is having a corrosive effect on U.S. politics.”
For example, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. sees the problem not as one of income inequality but of “opportunity inequality” and continues to resist efforts to raise the minimum wage. To be clear, opportunity inequality is alive and thriving in America; but any attempts to separate it from income inequality are divertive and lacking recognition of the correlation between the two.
Senator Rand Paul during a recent visit to Detroit, where unemployment has been above 15 percent for more than a year, said that it would be a “disservice” to the jobless to extend their unemployment benefits beyond the current limit. Further, Senator Ryan, another potential presidential candidate, has been traveling the country declaring how the government safety net—programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Head Start—has “failed miserably.”
In contrast, President Obama has warned that “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.” He has called for an increase in the minimum wage—a move the National Urban League has been pushing since 2006—and an extension of unemployment benefits as first steps in addressing the problem. On Jan. 9, he announced the creation of five “Promise Zones,” in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma that will receive targeted government tax incentives to create jobs and reduce unemployment.
In a message to the Davos attendees, Pope Francis said that “the growth of equality demands something more than economic growth, even though it presupposes it…It also calls for decisions, mechanisms and processes directed to a better distribution of wealth, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am convinced that from such an openness to the transcendent a new political and business mentality can take shape, one capable of guiding all economic and financial activity within the horizon of an ethical approach which is truly humane.”
The need is clear. The Urban League has raised this issue constantly over the last several years—and people are finally listening. We must not let the seriousness and urgency of this problem get caught in the crossfire of ideological warfare. Americans need policy solutions developed in partnership with corporate, government and non-profit leaders—now.
Awareness is good…action is better.
(Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.)