The Growing Gap Between the Rich and the Poor

The full story is never on the front pages of our newspapers.  You have to piece it together, but the evidence is everywhere — and it adds up to important and frightening news about how our social fabric is being pulled apart.

This week a new report by the U.S. Census Bureau announces: “the poor have rapidly gotten poorer.”  Different sectors have declined at different rates, but the overall trend is clear.  Now 46 million Americans live in poverty. (See, “The Poor Are Still Getting Poorer.”)

That is the highest number in the 52 years the census bureau has been tracking poverty, and it amounts to 15.1 percent of the whole population.  (See “U.S. Poverty Rate, 1 in 6, at Highest Level in Years.”)

But that just half the story:  at the same time, the rich are getting richer.  In June, according to a study commissioned by The Times:  “the median pay for top executives at 200 big companies last year was $10.8 million. That works out to a 23 percent gain from 2009.” (See, “We Knew They Got Raises. But This?”)

The Times went on to say something about average pay:  “The average American worker was taking home $752 a week in late 2010, up a mere 0.5 percent from a year earlier.  After inflation, workers were actually making less.”

“It was the first time since the Great Depression that median household income, adjusted for inflation, had not risen over such a long period,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard.  “We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.” (See, “Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on ‘Lost Decade.’”)

The fall-out effects are everywhere.  According to a new report on higher education:  “As income inequality has increased in the United States over the last decade, so too has the gap between rich and poor colleges and universities.”

“Between 1999 and 2009, private research universities that enroll about 1.1 million students increased their education-related spending per student by about $7,500, to almost $36,000. But in that same period, education-related spending stayed . . . at slightly more than $10,000 per student, at the public community collages that enroll 6.7 million students.”

As the Director of the research project issuing the report put it:  “The growing gap between the haves and the have-nots has become much more exaggerated over the last 10 years.” (See, “Spending Inequity in Colleges Has Risen.”)

And there is growing inequality among jobs.  The official jobless figures are getting worse, but just having a job is no longer protection against poverty.  So many are underemployed, partially employed or just plain exploited.

As a society we protect ourselves from the full impact of this widening gap by fragmenting the news.  We all know parts of it, but the whole picture is not being presented.  We get to see one part of the elephant at a time.

It might be too frightening to see the whole, and we might start to feel the need to do something about it.