You have often heard me say that the American Dream belongs to all of us. Occupy Wall Street has, over the past month, gained the support of hundreds of thousands of Americans who seem to be saying the same thing. They are expressing many different ideas but are united by a conviction that is impossible to deny: that unless we act now, America will no longer be a land of equality, that our middle class will not have a fair shake, and that Washington’s policies will tilt ever more fiercely in favor of the most privileged among us.
The protestors feel in their gut that our nation is less fair and equitable than it was a generation ago, and the evidence proves them right. Nearly 25 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed. The typical working-age family’s earnings are no higher today than they were almost two decades ago. And according to one study by a Federal Reserve economist, inequality has become so entrenched that a poor family would need nearly 10 generations – more than 200 years – to achieve middle-class income.
Put another way, if you are poor today, then you may reasonably hope that your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will finally climb into the middle class. Is that what the American Dream has come to?
Yet despite the tremendous challenges facing ordinary families, today is a good time to be very wealthy. Over the past three decades, the after-tax income of the top one percent of Americans has nearly tripled.
This explosion in inequality was not a freak occurrence beyond the influence of policymakers. Rather, it was the direct result of policy run amok: decades of tax cuts for the very wealthy and a determined strategy of taking cops off the beat on Wall Street. I have fought tooth and nail against these policies, with some success – most notably the passage of last year’s Wall Street reform bill and the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But too many in Congress are clinging to the failed ideologies that led to this crisis and are abandoning ordinary Americans who, through no fault of their own, cannot find a job or pay their mortgage.
Those people of privilege who disparage or dismiss the demonstrators as unfocused, naïve rebels without a cause seem to miss the point. Mystified, they say, “What are these demonstrators talking about? Our success shows the reality of the American Dream. We have made it through our work and wit.” Some politicians, clueless, want to pursue policies that would exacerbate these inequalities. Yet the truth is that runaway inequality has dampened America’s growth and weakened America’s society. If we fail to restore the American Dream to all of our citizens, the cost to our country – economically and in our individual freedoms – will be enormous.
It is no wonder that people are frustrated, angry, and disillusioned. What is astonishing, and alarming, is that so many in Congress have ignored their plight for so long.
Member of Congress