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On the Media: It's time for America to talk class

Income disparity isn't a headline-grabbing topic, but the nation needs to have a serious discussion about it.

September 21, 2011|James Rainey
  • Investor Warren Buffett
Investor Warren Buffett (Lucas Jackson / Reuters )

In a week that saw the number of people in poverty hit a half-century high and President Obama propose a tax increase on those with million-dollar incomes, will America and the American media finally dig in for a serious conversation about class?

Ghastly economic news and grinding unemployment would say yes. Even though economists say the gap between haves and have-nots has been building for three decades, the growing income disparity and its causes have come up for discussion mostly as a sidebar — removed from the front page, rarely the lead story on the evening news.

It's hard to know why arguably the central story of our times — featuring the retreat of the stable, single-wage household — has been pushed off the front burner. But at least a few possibilities seem likely.

The media excels at stories that are instantaneous, visual and that produce clear winners and losers. Wild swings in the stock market are fodder for instant analysis. Other economic indicators swing up and, lately, mostly down. But the fortunes of American workers — and more difficult to assess measures of buying power and mobility — have been eroding over many years.

The most severe victims only become obvious when they hit unemployment lines or homeless shelters. And in most cities, despite the struggles of our own industry, most journalists still live more cheek by jowl with the people who are getting by.

In the years since the late 1970s, journalists have been focused elsewhere. Like many historians, political scientists and sociologists, their reporting has been aimed at other great socioeconomic collisions: between men and women, black and white, gay and straight, religious and secular, immigrants and native-born Americans.

Even when a reporter or news outlet pursues the story of what economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls "the Great Divergence," the working class has no obvious lobbying group or advocate to bring its interests to the fore. Unions once played that role, but they've been in retreat over the same period, notes Jefferson Cowie, a Cornell University historian and author of "Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class."

Public opinion surveys, even since the current economic calamity began, suggest a majority of the public hold an almost mystic faith in the upward mobility ideal. If they suspect that the system doesn't work like it used to, or that the game is rigged, they hesitate to speak out, lest they sound as though they are whining.

And there's plenty of fodder for those who want to create a counter, not-so-bad narrative. The conservative Heritage Foundation last week met the Census Bureau report on poverty with a study of its own suggesting that the poor weren't doing that poorly. Heritage researchers based that conclusion on the fact that the vast majority of those in poverty can afford things like a DVD player, microwave, car and on the fact that very few actually go hungry. Any number of news outlets ran with the Heritage findings.

"Americans have been uncomfortable for a long time talking about class. It's a very intense taboo," said Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and author of "Reshaping The Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter." "We have this very strong self-image of equality and image that anyone can make it. The idea that there is a strong class system undercuts the claims we cherish most. Yet there is a strong class system in the U.S."

Last week's Census Bureau figures showed that 46.2 million people, nearly one in six Americans, live in poverty. Meanwhile, chief executives of the nation's largest companies earn more than $11 million on average, 343 times more than the typical worker. In 1980, Business Week magazine estimated top execs made a mere 42 times the pay of factory workers.

An Associated Press feature story this week expanded on the new poverty figures with multiple vignettes. The piece showed citizens cast into homelessness, forced to choose between necessities and unable to recover despite earnest effort.

Williams said such coverage is fine, as are stories about gender and race differences. But the struggling working class gets far less attention and, she said, feels less politically represented than other groups. "These families hit the economic skids in the 1970s, back when Dad could support the family … in a stable job with a stable income. That is mostly gone," Williams said. "It's an unbelievably dramatic story. It just isn't covered that much."

The class divide story gets much better play, ironically, when the elite open the discussion. So back in 2005, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan set off a spate of stories when he commented on growing income inequality. "This is not the type of thing which a democratic society — a capitalist democratic society — can really accept without addressing," said the celebrated free-marketeer.

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