Inequality matters (The Journal Record)

by David Blatt

Oklahoma’s economy has grown faster than most in recent years, but new research finds that almost all the income gains are going to the wealthiest households. That inequality is growing at a troubling rate.

A common argument made by those who defend rising inequality is that the overall pie is increasing for everyone, even if the rich gain the most. A new report, “Pulling Apart: A State by State Analysis of Income Trends,” by the Center on Budget Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, shows this isn’t the case.

During the most recent economic expansion from 1998 to 2007, the incomes of the richest fifth of Oklahoma households grew by 7.7 percent. Incomes for the middle fifth remained stagnant. Incomes for the poorest fifth fell by 7.5 percent.

Growing inequality is not unique to Oklahoma. Since 1979, the share of income going to the top 1 percent of households has more than doubled to more than 20 percent.

Inequality matters for many reasons. The growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else not only raises basic issues of fairness, but also adversely affects our economy and political system. Research has found links between high levels of inequality and high crime rates, poor health outcomes, and reduced educational attainment. Since disparities in wealth are tied to discrepancies in political influence, growing inequality can lead to loss of trust in government, declining political participation, and political polarization.

Perhaps most disturbingly, inequality erodes the bonds of social cohesion. As distances widen, we no longer feel that we are all in this together. Withdrawing into private societies, the wealthy can become less concerned with and less willing to support better public schools, better medical care, and safer communities for everyone else.

Public policies at the federal and state levels must take inequality more seriously. To allow all to get ahead, we must support investments in common and higher education and provide greater opportunities for families to save and invest. We must protect and strengthen the social safety net that provides basic financial security for struggling families. We must reject approaches that cut taxes for highest income households and raise taxes for the poor and middle class.

Reversing inequality will be long and difficult, but the effort is essential if we are to revitalize the dream of shared prosperity.

David Blatt is director of Oklahoma Policy Institute,



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