Exactly a half-century ago, in 1964, a President of the United States announced a “war on poverty.” That war would soon dominate the nation’s domestic political discourse — and make a real difference. Over the next 10 years, America’s official poverty rate dropped from 19 to 11.2 percent.
But that progress against povertystalled in the 1970s, and a profound economic insecurity now afflicts the vast majority of Americans, poor and middle-class alike. Households in America’s most affluent 1 percent, meanwhile, have more than doubled their share of the nation’s income.
Against this backdrop, our current President has now declared inequality“the defining issue of our time.” Top Democrats, news reports shout, are moving to make inequality the centerpiece of the 2014 elections. Even some GOP pols are jostling to show they care about how unequal America has become.
Will all this new concern about our 21st century income divide translate into an offensive against inequality as credible — and effective — as the war on poverty in the decade after 1964? The realpolitik odds say no.
America has changed. Our growing concentration of income and wealth has left the nation a fundamentally different place. Back in the 1960s, the rich had no chokehold on America’s democratic process. Today they do.
America had rich people, of course, back in the 1960s. But we didn’t have all that many of them. And those rich we did have had far less wealth than their counterparts today — and far less capacity to create political mayhem.