Inequalities in income, wealth, and opportunity have risen to virtually unprecedented levels. In Affluence and Influence, political scientist Martin Gilens demonstrates that in policy disagreements between the most well-off and everyone else, the wealthy consistently win. And while it’s not too late to change things, if this problem gets worse, it could seriously impair our democracy.
One glaring cause and consequence of rising inequality is that Congress has not raised the minimum wage since 2007. FDR described the minimum wage as necessary in any “self-supporting and self-respecting democracy.” So why does it lag so far behind growth in worker output per hour, despite widespread support for increases throughout nearly all the income and wealth distribution? To understand the lack of recent minimum wage increases, look to the highest one percent of the wealth distribution, where one starts to see significant opposition.
Expanding economic inequality may also enlarge gaps in policy preferences between the affluent and the rest of us. We increasingly see proposals to shrink the wildly popular and successful Social Security program, despite the fact that most Americans prefer to expand these programs.
The good news is that we know how to protect our democracy. Leveling the playing field for political contributions, strengthening voting rights, and limiting the influence of corporate lobbyists are a good start. So are full employment, modernized labor standards and worker empowerment, and public investments in education and care. And, imperfect as they are, elections, like the one we are having next November, still offer less affluent Americans a chance to be heard.