Following up on his series in Slate on income inequality Timothy Noah complains that the lower 99% of income earners aren’t ready to start manning the barricades because they’re too stupid:
Americans’ ignorance about wealth (and, probably, income) distribution is encouraging in the sense that it offers hope that most voters might opt for government policies more conducive to equality if only they knew how unequal things were. But it’s dismaying in the sense that people who occupy a position of relative privilege seem to go out of their way to avoid acknowledging it.
I’d like to propose another explanation. The difference between storming the nearest office of Goldman Sachs and switching the channel to American Idol is the difference between desperation and pique. Let’s consider the dichotomy Mr. Noah presents:
In the first installment, I noted that in 1915, when the richest 1 percent accounted for about 18 percent of the nation’s income, the prospect of class warfare was imminent. Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income, yet the prospect of class warfare is utterly remote. Indeed, the political question foremost in Washington’s mind is how thoroughly the political party more closely associated with the working class (that would be the Democrats) will get clobbered in the next election.
through the prism of my own own family’s experience. In 1915 my great-grandmother, Mary Jane Flanagan Schneider, was 45 years old and in many ways typical of the urban poor. She was the mother of six children. While the oldest, 16 year old Annunziata (the Schneiders were poor in worldly possessions but rich in names), my grandmother, took care of the younger children she worked for meager wages as a cook.
Her husband, August, had been a butcher but was unable to hold a job because of alcoholism. She was ultimately to divorce him, a great scandal at that time.
They lived in a one room houseboat on the banks of the Mississippi, in sight of where the St. Louis arch now stands in the most humble of circumstances. There was no running water. What water they needed they pulled from the Mississippi in a bucket (!).
One of the children died of tuberculosis in her late teens. One starved to death. Another died of epilepsy at 13. Yet another died at 28 under circumstances I haven’t been able to discover. The children were in and out of orphanages depending on whether Mary Jane was able to support them or not. There was no public assistance of any kind. There was no unemployment assistance. There was no disability assistance or aid for dependent children or anything of the sort.
Very, very few women had any education and there were very few decent jobs available to women who had no education. Cook was about as good as it got. How did Mary Jane Schneider keep a family of six on a cook’s wages? Mostly she couldn’t.
Fast forward to the present day. Almost 50% of the poor own their own homes. Three quarters of the poor have air conditioning. Few live in overcrowded circumstances. Three quarters own a car. Nearly all own a color television set and nearly half own two. Three quarters have a VCR or DVD player, two-thirds have cable.
Is it ignorance or the lack of the genuine deprivation of the truly poor that keeps 99% of Americans from marching in the streets?
Having less than the top 1% of income earners bothers the folks on the next rung down a lot more than it does the poor. That’s why they’re whining about it.