“There’s one thing this country won’t forgive, it’s the sin of being poor.”
–Garnet Rogers, “Election Night: North Dakota” (1984)
The gulf between rich and poor in most states is wide and growing, according to a new report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Connecticut Voices for Children and the Connecticut Association for Human Services analyzed the report, and found that Connecticut’s gap is one of the worst, and one of the fastest-growing, in the country.
This is grim news for the state and the nation, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Government’s idea of virtuous economic policy since the presidency of Ronald Reagan has been a combination of tax cuts for the wealthy and service cuts for the poor. Welfare became harder to get and keep, education deteriorated, infrastructure decayed, and America became a meaner place. This terrible, toxic myth of “makers” vs. “takers” has poisoned how Americans think about income and poverty. It’s telling that one of the two major parties can so blithely deride the poor as greedy, lazy stealers of other people’s work, and then after their embarrassing loss complain that the opposition only won because they were giving “gifts” to blocs of people who did not deserve them. We’ve never had a lot of compassion for the poor, but sometime in the past few decades Americans decided to stop caring at all.
Income inequality in Connecticut is especially sharp. Again, this isn’t a huge surprise, given that we are home to both glittering riches in suburban Fairfield County and deep urban poverty in the cities on the coast and the valley. In fact, Connecticut ranks first among the states when it comes to the change in ratio of incomes of top-tier and bottom-tier families between 1977-79 and 2005-07. In short, the gulf between rich and poor is widening in this country, and Connecticut is leading the way.
Maybe one good thing that will come out of this report is that it finally, and permanently, discredits the destructive disaster that is trickle-down economics. One of the tiredest arguments against raising taxes on the rich is that the wealthy create good jobs by spending the income the government wants to “take” in taxes. If the super-wealthy do indeed create jobs, those jobs are in no way good or stable employment. Our leaders’ moral hand-waving about the virtuous rich and the lazy poor has done nothing but make the rich far richer while everyone else sinks.
Unfortunately, as the report suggests, there’s not really an easy fix. Connecticut was 46th in inequality between the top and bottom earners in 1977-79; our jump to the top of the rankings is in part a symptom of the economic collapse this state suffered thanks to the decline of defense, insurance, and manufacturing. These are structural problems, the end result of our embrace of a capitalism that cares not for the people and places it relies upon to flourish, but only for its own profit. This is a ship that has been sailing in the wrong direction for 30 years, and it can’t be turned around so easily.
Some of the suggestions in the report, such as strengthening programs like Medicaid and shoring up the unemployment insurance system, make sense and should be considered by the legislature during the upcoming session. Those are things that have a mild chance of success. The report also suggests a minimum wage hike and further taxation of the rich, which almost certainly don’t. Minimum wage hikes are always a hard sell, and an economy that continues to struggle makes it almost impossible. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, with perhaps an eye on re-election in 2014, has said the budget will be balanced with no tax hikes this time, which means potentially harsh spending cuts.
Despite the looming budget gap, the state should continue to make smart investments in accessible, affordable education, public transportation, health care, and other institutions that enable people to get into the workforce and stay there. But if we’re really serious about closing this income gap, we need to change our thinking. We have to stop making poverty a sin and wealth an untouchable virtue, and work to rebuild the sort of economically mobile society with a strong and accessible middle class that we had in the past. We have to stop being cruel, and remember how to care about our fellow Americans.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.