'Opportunity gap'? ‘Income inequality'? Same coin, different sides

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Back in February, four months before he officially announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, former Gov. Jeb Bush made a startling statement:

“The opportunity gap is the defining issue of our time,” he told the Detroit Economic Club. “More Americans are stuck at their income levels than ever before. It’s very hard for people to go from the bottom rungs of the economy to the top or even the middle. This should alarm you. It has alarmed me.”

It was startling because it sounded very much like a speech given 14 months earlier by President Barack Obama.

In December 2013, the president spoke at an event organized by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, describing a “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.

“I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American.”

So defining-challenge-of-our-times-wise, what’s the difference between Bush’s “opportunity gap” and Obama’s “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility”?

Nothing. They are two sides of the same coin.

Bush and Obama were describing the same reality, but Bush was parsing his language more carefully. That’s because among certain Republicans, “income inequality” means “class warfare” and them’s fightin' words. Consider Rush Limbaugh’s take on March 28, 2014:

“Income inequality is income redistribution from those who work for a living to those who vote for a living. Plain and simple.”

This ignores all sorts of reality. First, income already has been redistributed, upwards (“There is class warfare, all right,” said Warren Buffett in 2011. “But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”) And two, the reality is that those who don’t work also don’t vote in massive numbers; they are less likely to vote than middle-income Americans and far less likely than upper-income Americans.

The problem is that middle-income Americans, for a variety of reasons, often vote against their own economic interests, for candidates who support policies that have created the widest income disparities since the Great Depression.

But “income inequality” doesn’t poll well. Americans, for the most part, don’t begrudge someone his success. But they’d like a better shot at success for themselves.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported in early May that: “By a greater than 2-to-1 margin, however, Americans said they’re less worried about the income gap, per se, and more worried about how middle- or working-class Americans can get ahead financially.”

Americans don’t realize it’s a false choice.

Thus Bush’s stress on the “opportunity gap,” as if it bears no connection to the fact that Federal Reserve data show that in 2013, the median wealth of the nation’s upper-income families ($639,400) was nearly seven times the median wealth of middle-income families ($96,500). And the median rich guy’s $639,400 was nearly 70 times that of the median low-income guy.

Between 1979 and 2007, the top 1 percent of households took more than half (53.9 percent) of the total increase in U.S. income. In that same period, the average income of the bottom 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers grew by 18.9 percent. That of the top 1 percent grew by 200.5 percent.

So if you can’t get ahead, there’s a reason: Too few people are keeping too much of the money. If you’re born into a family in the bottom fifth of income distribution, it’s 70 percent you don’t make it to the middle class.

If your kids don’t get a good preschool education, chances are they won’t get ahead. If they go to bad schools, they won’t get ahead. If they can’t afford college, they won’t get ahead.

Yes, you can get stuck because of poor choices made by you or your parents, but most often you get stuck because of poor policy choices made by lawmakers invested in the opportunity gap status quo.

We can’t grow our way out of “the defining issue of our time,” not when 1 person in every 100 is taking 38 percent of all the growth in income, and the next 9 guys are taking another quarter. Particularly when they think the other 90 are deadbeats.