New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg – on his weekly radio show – was asked about the implications of the rising poverty rate in the U.S. He responded, “[Y]ou have a lot of kids graduating college, who can’t find jobs…That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here.”
The data certainly support his underlying premise: there has been a growing gap between the rich and the poor in the United States. As Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez (the E. Morris Cox Professor of Economics) has demonstrated in a series of highly regarded papers, the share of income going to the top 1% of families has more than doubled in the last 30 years or so (see, “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998” with Thomas Piketty, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 2003, 1-39 (Longer updated version published in A.B. Atkinson and T. Piketty eds., Oxford University Press, 2007)
Or as the Congressional Budget Office has reported, from 1979 to 2007 the bottom 80% of American income earners saw a 16% increase in their after-tax income. By comparison, the top 20% experienced a 95% increase, the top 5% a 160% increase and the top 1% a whopping 281% increase in after-tax income over the roughly thirty year period (Congressional Budget Office, Average Federal Taxes by Income Group, “Average After-Tax Household Income,” June, 2010).
To Bloomberg’s point – the research literature firmly supports the finding that there is a strong correlation between high levels of income inequality in a society and civil, social, and political unrest. So why hasn’t his warning resonated with the American public? How come mainstream politicians are not making speeches about it and offering new and interesting solutions?
The answer, I believe, is in the way that dominant frames trump facts and crowd out alternative ways of thinking about social problems. An analysis of the public reaction to the mayor’s comments makes this clear.
There have been at least two significant lines of public discourse surrounding the Bloomberg comments. The first is from critics who have accused the mayor of inciting class-based riots. They say that Americans wouldn’t dream of such things and it is irresponsible of the mayor to suggest otherwise. The second is that some believe the mayor is making excuses for the anti-social and opportunistic behavior of thugs, petty thieves, and gangbangers.
Among the most dominant of American frames is the concept of individual responsibility. That is, people’s life chances are determined by their efforts, not by their situations. In many ways this belief has mitigated class antagonisms in the U.S. for most of our history. People believe it is effort and talent that account for success in life – the Horatio Alger narrative of American life. In this story there is no room for structural inequities and class-based constraints. After all, the American way is all about the self-made individual. In this construction, growing income inequality is less of a concern than in other countries because people can (and occasionally do) rise above their station in life.
The second part of the public discourse is rooted in what we at FrameWorks have called the “race trap”. From this perspective people associate looters and rioters with racial minorities. They understand civil unrest (particularly in post-WWII America) as something that is confined to minority communities and, as such, is outside of the mainstream of American life. Ostensible grievances against structural impediments are perceived to be rationalizations for already lawless groups looking to take advantage of any opportunity to make a quick buck (as opposed to the commitment to put in the consistently hard work it takes to succeed). The “rioters” in London, from this perspective, are simply minority groups with pent-up frustrations about their lot in life. And in this way they are similar to American minorities.
What this discourse conceals is that inequality is spreading at an alarming rate. Given that white Americans are increasingly joining the ranks of the chronically unemployed, I wonder how long the dominant race narrative of racial inequality resulting from minority group dysfunction will last.
Class-based, interracial coalitions advocating for social change has been the mantra of progressive leaders for some time now. Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized this in the latter stages of his life.
The question is how much inequality it takes to reset the dominant paradigm.