How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Opinion: America is 'in a collision course headed for disaster' if economic inequality is not addressed

Barbara Garson’s newest book, “Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession,” is evocative, poignant and troubling. John Judis, senior editor of The New Republic, wrote the following about it: “Most recessions come and go and leave little in their wake. People return to jobs, banks resume lending. But the Great Recession struck directly at the American dream of long-term employment and home ownership.”

Typically, during recessions, the percentage of national income that goes to investors declines and the percentage that goes to employees increases. Garson explains that the Great Recession was very different — the distribution of income took a reverse “Robin Hood turn.” Garson points out that corporate profits were greater at the end of the Great Recession than at the start and that wages as a share of national income fell to the lowest level since the end of World War II. The Great Recession has thrown huge economic challenges at all but the super-rich.

Garson paints a sobering picture of what happens to society when it becomes economically organized to benefit the top 1 percent of the population and the quick-buck speculators. She also points out the resilience of ordinary Americans, who are increasingly struggling to make ends meet on minimum-wage jobs that do not cover their basic monthly living expenses, while the wages of the top 1 percent are exploding. In this regard, Bloomberg News pointed out that a worker at a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago who earns $8.25 per hour would have to work 100 years to match the $8.75 million the company’s CEO earned in 2011 alone.

From the end of World War II through the 1970s, American workers enjoyed a quarter of a century of unprecedented prosperity. The middle class grew and, according to Garson, even “a blue-collar worker, like William Bendix in ‘The Life of Riley,’ could own a modest home, buy a television (far more costly for its time than a computer today), take his family on camping vacations, and send a boy to college in preparation for a job that would pay better than his father’s and actually existed. A professional or middle manager ... could own a ranch home, take a more expensive vacation, trade a car in every few years, then send the boy and the girl to college. For unless you were incompetent or unlucky, your earnings gradually increased over the course of your working life.”

Through vignettes, Garson relates front-line stories of the decades-long erosion of the average American’s economic position, which culminated in the Great Recession and continues for most people today. She explains that, as the gap between the wages of workers and senior managers grew by leaps and bounds between 1976 and 2007, for far too many Americans, the land of opportunity is now the land of “tough luck.”

For the first time, most Americans think it is unlikely that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents (Gallup poll, 2011). American social mobility is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Nearly two-thirds of children born to parents in the bottom income quintile remain stuck in the lowest two quintiles as adults.

According to a July 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 4 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the economic ladder will rise to the top as adults, and nearly two-thirds of African-Americans who grew up in middle-class families will fall to lower rungs as adults.

Garson is by no means the only one concerned about the human toll that growing inequality is taking on all but the super-affluent. In a surprising July 27 interview with The New York Times, President Obama said that he was “worried that years of widening income inequality and lingering effects of the financial crisis had frayed the country’s social fabric and undermined America’s belief in opportunity.”

Most recently, Pope Francis criticized growing economic inequality and unfettered markets.

And Robert Putnam, professor of public policy and author of the seminal book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” made a similar point about growing inequality when he wrote this about his hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio, which, in the 1950s was the “embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for the children of bankers and factory workers alike... . But a half-century later, wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the Port Clinton High School lot next to decrepit ‘junkers’ in which homeless classmates live. The American dream has morphed into a split-screen American nightmare. And the story of this small town, and the divergent destinies of its children, turns out to be sadly representative of America.”

Putnam concludes by indicating that unless government, the private sector, the community and each of us individually embrace a sense of “we,” the “American dream will increasingly seem [like] cynical historical fiction.”

We are in a collision course headed for disaster, as a nation, unless we take action to address soaring inequality that is dividing us, and will destroy us.