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Time for America to Be a Level Playing Field Again

Former MTA Chairman and current New York City Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota talks with reporters. (Photo: MTAPhotos)
A lack of income equality is one of the biggest issues facing America today, but don’t tell that to Joe Lhota.
Lhota, the former chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and current New York City Republican mayoral candidate, doesn’t think that income inequality (a lack of income equality) is a problem in the Big Apple, even though the problem is staring him right in the face.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe Friday, when asked by Sam Stein if income inequality in New York City was a problem, Lhota replied, “No, I don’t think it’s a problem. You said ‘does it exist,’ it exists. I don’t think it’s a problem. I don’t think it’s a problem, it exists.”
In reality, a lack of income equality is a HUGE problem in New York City.
The latest census data reveals that, while the economy is still recovering since 2008’s Great Recession, the poverty rate in New York City increased to 21.2 percent of households in 2012, up from 20.1 percent in 2010.
And the gap between that city’s poorest fifth of residents and wealthiest fifth was around 50-fold in 2012, one of the largest gaps in the nation.
Unfortunately, a lack of income equality isn’t just a problem in New York City; it’s a problem all across the nation.
As Yale University economist Robert Schiller put it, “The most important problem that we are facing today…is rising inequality in the United States and elsewhere in the world.”
Today, the 400 wealthiest Americans own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.
And according to the film “Inequality for All” narrated by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the wealth gap in the U.S. today is as wide as it was in 1928, just before the Great Depression.
The wealthiest 1% of Americans own more than 35% of America’s wealth, while the bottom 50% of Americans own just 2.5% of this nation’s wealth.
Over the past 15 years, the annual income of the typical American household has fallen 9%.
Meanwhile, since the Great Recession ended in 2009, incomes have grown by only 4% for the bottom 99% of Americans, but climbed by more than 31% for the top 1% of Americans.
While the gap between the nation’s rich and poor may be the widest it’s ever been, it hasn’t come out of nowhere.
America’s lack of income equality has been steadily increasing over the past 35 years, and it really began to explode during the Reagan presidency.
John Voorheis, a graduate student at the University of Oregon, has put together a stunning visualization of how the lack of income equality has grown in the United States since 1977.
Red means higher levels of income equality in a state, while green means lower levels of income equality.
Back in 1977, much of the United States was red, meaning that there were high levels of income equality across the nation.
But as time goes on, more and more states become green, particularly during the 1980’s.
And as of last year, most states still had high levels of inequality/low levels of income equality.
Thanks to these record-low levels of income equality, our country is suffering from a host of other issues too.
As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out in their brilliant book The Spirit Level, countries with higher levels of inequality have more health and social problems too.
This includes things like higher levels of teenage pregnancy, higher levels of obesity, an increased risk of mental illness, more violent crime, a higher infant mortality rate, higher rates of incarceration, lower levels of social mobility, and a lower life expectancy.
But all of these health and social problems are reduced when income equality is greater.
So what can we do to reduce the record-high levels of income inequality in America and create a more level playing field?
First, despite what Republicans in Washington may say, we need to strengthen and expand social safety net programs, not do away with them.
Americans who are living on the edge need some bootstraps to pull themselves up by.
Programs like Medicaid and food stamps are essential because they provide those bootstraps and help them get back on their feet.
Next, we need to invest more in education, so young people can succeed when they enter the workplace, and make positive contributions to the economy.
Right now, the United States ranks 17th in the world among developed countries when it comes to overall education, and 25th in math and science.
That’s bad – really bad.
We also need to tackle the loopholes that make our tax system favor the rich, and roll back the Reagan tax cuts that caused the income inequality explosion in the first place.
This way, America’s wealthiest citizens will pay their fair share, and do their part to support the American economy.
And we need to start making corporations pay their fair share in taxes too.
We can’t allow giant transnational corporations to make billions in profit, while paying next to nothing in taxes.
Next, we need to bring back to America the tens of millions of jobs that have been shipped overseas since the beginning of Reaganomics.
To make this work, this nation’s trade policies have to change.
No more so-called free trade deals like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Finally, a business model that depends on screwing over workers with pay that is so low that those workers qualify for food stamps and Medicaid should be done away with.
If we just set the minimum wage to what it was in 1968, $10.25 in today’s dollars, we would instantly begin the processes of rebuilding our middle-class and closing the gap between the rich and poor.
A minimum wage of $12 per hour would do an even better job of moving us in the right direction.
Income inequality is a huge problem in America, but fortunately there are a variety of things that can, and should, be done to fight it.
It’s time to again level the American playing field, so all Americans have a chance to succeed.