Steve Haycox: Gap between haves and have-nots is America's most dangerous division

commentDecember 12, 2013 

Income inequality has been much in the news the past several weeks, after Pope Francis' denunciation in November of "trickle down" economics, and President Obama's Dec. 4 speech at the Center for American Progress in which he called income inequality "the defining challenge of our time."

David Simon, executive producer of the creative and powerful HBO series "The Wire," speaking at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia, as reported in The Guardian, suggests that America has become a "horror show," that, far more dangerous than a racial divide, what characterizes the U.S. now is a class divide.

And former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Deputy Secretary Roger Altman and Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland wrote in the Washington Post this week that with 47 million Americans living in poverty and another 18 million in near poverty, "it is hard to reconcile traditional American values of hard work and generosity with the levels of poverty and fear of hunger in our country," especially with 11 million of those living in poverty working; they simply cannot earn a living wage

The commemorations of Pearl Harbor 1941 last week were especially poignant, for today's America is not what the men and women America sent to that war were fighting for, a country where freedom of movement and opportunity are curtailed for a quarter of the population by poverty and the disablement, disengagement and disability it brings. In their letters home, as Stephen Ambrose and Gerald Linderman captured in "Citizen Soldiers" and "The World Within War," respectively, they endured the agony and dehumanizing experiences of real war so that their countrymen might have a better life, characterized by the optimism true freedom and economic opportunity afford.

In his talk in Australia, Simon observed that we now have produced two futures in America, one for people who are connected to the economy and another for those who are not. America underwent something similar previously, in the Great Depression, and before, in the crushing economic crisis of the 1890s. What is different, Simon argues, is that there exists now a new disconnect between the two worlds, a fundamental lack of concern on the part of many of the well-off with the fate of the poor, the new notion that they're not part of the real America, the America that counts. In 1932-33, the idea was that we have to help everyone get ahead, that we're all in this together. That inclusive concept, Simon avers, is lacking today. There is a new greed, he says, that cleaves the society into two Americas, two worlds, a cleavage starkly evident in the failure to tax wealth fairly.

Moreover, unlike 1932, disadvantaged America is cut off from the electoral process by its control by privileged America, by money and the moneyed class, a control exacerbated by the Supreme Court's decisions.

Perhaps Simon is too pessimistic. But the men and women who came to Alaska after World War II did not imagine a country in which 25 percent of the population would be permanently unable to advance economically and culturally, whose children would have no decent prospects.

In some ways, Alaska has been different. When Native Alaska took advantage of the opening afforded by the discovery of Prudhoe Bay oil and the new Alaska economy it created to claim their rightful part of the American economic and cultural dream, most Alaskans eventually applauded. The 1971 claims settlement act helped eliminate that set of two worlds. Today, Alaska, unlike most other U.S. states, has no current debt. The initial Prudhoe Bay bonanza, and in recent years the extraordinary high oil prices, have mostly insulated Alaska from the economic downturn that has intensified America's income and class divide.

But already the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage reports stress, there is increased call for help from food banks, and, of course, Gov. Parnell refuses to expand Medicaid benefits for thousands. What will happen in Alaska when next year's projected downturn in state funds grows into a true budget deficit, and there is yet less money available to help the disadvantaged, and fewer jobs?

Alaska will have an opportunity to show a more inclusive and compassionate regard for the disadvantaged in its midst.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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