Program – February 2014
February 13, 2014
The Incredible Shrinking Middle Class
Mark Rank, PhD, Herbert S. Hadley professor of social welfare at Washington University
Robert A. Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Mary Ann McGivern, writer and founder of the Peace Economy Project
Moderator: The Rev. Rudy Pulido
An overflow audience, including a social justice class from St. Joseph Academy, came to learn about the income inequality that is reducing the middle class in America. Mark Rank said that in the past 40 years, the top 20 percent of Americans, especially the top 5 percent and the top 1 percent, have increased their wealth while the income of the bottom 80 percent has either remained static or declined. In 1973 the median earnings of a man working full-time were $52,000, compared to $49,000 in 2012. In 1980 the average CEO made 42 times more than the average worker; today the CEO makes 300 times more. Rank emphasized the dangers posed by this income inequality:
- It distorts America’s democratic system because the wealthy have inordinate influence on the democratic process.
- It reduces equality of opportunity, making it impossible for many to realize the American dream, which is based on the premise that anyone who works hard can succeed in this country. Rank said economic mobility in the United States has been reduced below that of many other countries.
An important factor threatening the middle class has been the decline of unions, said Robert A. Soutier. Only 11 percent of American workers are represented by unions. “Right to work” states have decimated unions, he said, yet unemployment is no better in those states than in union states, and workers in RTW states make about $4,600 less per year than those in union states. Of the 20 poorest states, 13 are “right to work,” costing taxpayers money to pay for social services.
Mary Ann McGivern said Occupy Wall Street was successful because the movement raised consciousness that grassroots efforts are essential to bring about a society in which most people can answer yes to three questions: Are you happy? Are you financially and physically secure? Do you have agency over your own life? She urged the audience to speak out: “Put your state legislators on speed dial. Stop by your legislator’s office.”
In a lively question-answer session, the panelists and audience members suggested how progressive people can draw attention to the problems of income inequality and create a more just society:
- Work for an increase in the minimum wage. Research indicates that raising the minimum wage does not hurt profits, Rank said.
- Support efforts to nullify the Citizens United decision, which has given corporations unprecedented influence in political decisions by allowing candidates to receive huge contributions from special interest groups and corporations. The governor’s race in Missouri will cost each candidate an estimated $20 million, Soutier said.
- When discussing the issue of income inequality, emphasize that America is moving away from its core values of liberty and justice for all. Focus on the question of whether it is right for our country to be one where someone who works full-time cannot rise out of poverty.
- History shows that, to effect change, individuals and organizations must participate in grassroots activities. Panelists advised the audience to vote; form coalitions and work with people and organizations that share their values; participate in demonstrations; write letters to the editor, Congressional representatives, and CEOs of corporations.