Inequality works for me!

by Joe Ferullo

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Growing income inequality is actually a really wonderful thing -- for me personally.

In the president's forceful speech Dec. 4 about the widening gap between rich and poor, he noted that someone born in the top 20 percent of income-earners has a very solid 2-in-3 chance of staying there.

Great news for me! And my kids! I fit into that income category -- so my kids are basically set for life. A smooth ride here on out. And let me make this point clear -- we did it all on our own. We got no help from anyone, let alone some wasteful government program that is really a thin disguise for radical income distribution.

But wait. A memory keeps peeking in through the fog as I write this -- I try to battle it back with a swig of high-end vodka sipped from a cut-crystal tumbler. It is persistent. The distant memory is this: 

I was born into the bottom 80 percent myself. Today, someone like me would have less than a 1-in-20 chance of ever moving out and up economically. I am, by all accounts, simply lucky. In the 1960s and '70s, when I was growing up, income inequality was not an overwhelming factor in American life. As the president pointed out, a CEO back then earned about 20 to 30 times the salary of an average worker; now, he makes 273 times more. 

And the social safety net, even for a working-class man like my father, was stronger: College costs had not yet skyrocketed and state and federal tuition programs further softened the hardship. A house wasn't a king's ransom and mortgage loans were something you could actually count on year after year -- banks were boringly stable. 

My parents had been born into abject poverty themselves. My mother was raised in an orphanage; my father drove the family's bread delivery truck at age 12 to help bring in some money. But they could look up from where they were in, say, 1979, and see a way out for their children. It was just a few rungs up the ladder, not miles high in a penthouse they could never imagine touching. 

People forget. The comfortable become, well, comfortable, and slip on blinders lined in velvet to deny where they came from and where they are now. 

A survey released last month by the World Economic Forum revealed that America's leaders were among the least likely on the globe to see income inequality as a problem, even though 51 percent of all income earned in the U.S. goes to the top fifth of the population. 

That's because people do forget, and the well-off increasingly interact with other well-off people; they look around and see that, hey, all my friends have jobs. And nice cars. And kids in fine schools. Nothing off-message sneaks into their sight at all.

They need to take the designer blinders off.

We all need to put the overpriced vodka down, shake our heads clear -- and remember.

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 3-16, 2014 print issue under the headline: Those on top need to remember the bottom.

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