How the biggest story about America dropped off Page 1

There it was, a story about what President Obama had called “the defining challenge of our time,” income inequality, or how the rich have been getting and keep getting richer and the poor have been getting and keep getting poorer.
The story in the September 5 New York Times, “Least Affluent Families’ Incomes Are Declining, Fed Survey Shows,” did not make it to Page 1 of the NYT news section. Instead, it landed on page 2 of the paper’s Business Today. What’s going on here?

It is, to be sure, no longer news. And stories about this three-decades-old trend offer same-old statistics but no solutions. The story on September 5 reminded readers of just how the latest study by the Federal Reserve pinpointed the scope and impact of the trend:

  • “For the most affluent 10 percent of American families incomes rose by 10 percent from 2010 to 2013.”
  • “Average incomes dropped by 8 percent for the bottom 20 percent of families.”
  •  The Fed’s chairwoman, Janet Yellen, said this trend was “one of the most disturbing (trends) facing the nation,” echoing the president’s 2013 comment.

Despite past political debates and smatterings of public outrage, the Times story drily notes that there is neither agreement about causes nor even the pretense that solutions are in sight.

This despite agreement among some economists and sociologists about what the growing income gap between rich and poor means for America. In a 2008 discussion in Harvard Magazine a few of them explained that “Research indicates that high inequality reverberates through societies on multiple levels, correlating with, if not causing, more crime, less happiness, poorer mental and physical health, less racial harmony and less civic and political participation.”

Readers and watchers of the news in any city in America have expressed agreement with that assessment. The Harvard professors asked, somewhat plaintively after making it, “What kind of society do we want to live in?”

On January 12, 2014 another student of American society described the society we are living in, the society that seems to have accepted “The Vicious Circle of Income Equality,” in a NYT op-ed piece with that headline. Robert Frank, professor of economics at the Cornell School of Management, wrote: “As Americans, we once pointed with pride to our country’s high level of economic and social mobility, but we’ve now become one of the world’s most rigidly stratified industrial democracies,” a two-tiered land of the rich 10 percent and the struggling or poor 90 percent frozen in place by the enduring circle of income inequality.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans are proposing ways to break the “vicious circle.” Wall Street, where the market is god and wealth of a few the national purpose, makes sure neither party attempts a break: “…the financial sector is far and away the largest source of campaign contributions to federal parties and candidates,” the Center for Responsive Politics reported. Who in either party is willing to lose those contributions and put an end to the financialization of politics? “None of the above” remains the correct answer.

The market, many Americans have by now realized, has no morality. And no leading American politician has come along eager and able to act on what FDR described as the purpose of government. He told a Canadian journalist what that was: “… try to increase the security and happiness of a larger number of people.”

That was then. We have “moved on,” moved on to accepting a society shaped by what’s good not for FDR’s “larger number of people” but for Wall Street’s favored clients. And the story of how and why that happened is an old story now, no longer worthy a spot on the front page. But maybe the front page should, on a matter so big and important, stand against what is and not leave that solely to the editorial page. There are splendid precedents in the history of American journalism.

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