Widening wealth gap exposes America’s cultural commitment to inequality

I believe these truths to be self-evident: America is committed to inequality.

I teach literature. I study stories, so I’m going to identify a few of the most prominent stories we tell ourselves, the stories that not only accommodate us to inequality but also inspire our love of it. That’s right: Americans love inequality, and if we really do want to create a society premised on the value of equality, we must first confront this love, this addiction. You know what they say: the first step is admitting you have a problem.

So, here’s the reading list.

Mythologies of meritocracy

The story of meritocracy goes like this: On the basis of their talents, abilities, and efforts, people deserve more or less access to social resources in the form of housing, medical care, educational access, food, clothing, etc.

Even in the context of discussions of income inequality, few people question why a doctor, lawyer, politician, or banker earns a higher salary than a custodian, postal worker, grocery store cashier, fast food worker, social worker, or teacher. On the whole, Americans tend to accept income inequality in this regard and even to see it as just; that is, we have come to see meritocracy as a feature, even a hallmark, of a free and egalitarian society – even though in reality it enables and justifies gross inequality.

In short, the story goes, people get what they deserve. This belief in meritocracy thus enables us to justify poverty, people not having access to proper health care, not being able to afford college, not being able to afford food or housing, and so forth. With their thinking shaped by this framework, it has just come to make sense to most Americans, even if we are all performing socially necessary labor that makes all of our lives possible, that some people on the basis of what they do deserve to live in nicer neighborhoods, own larger houses, eat healthier foods, have access to better education, and drive better cars.

If we really want to address income inequality, we at least need to ponder the extent to which our ingrained cultural beliefs condition us to justify and embrace it; otherwise, how can we ever hope to change a system that our core cultural beliefs endorse and uphold? As any psychotherapist will tell you, it’s pretty difficult to change a behavior if one doesn’t address and transform the underlying core belief.

Climbing the ladder to success and other tales of upward mobility

Another dominant cultural narrative we love to both tell and hear is that of upward mobility, the rags-to-riches story. The harder and longer the climb, the more we tend to love the story and to proclaim, “Only in America.”

How often, though, do you ever hear people lament, upon hearing such a story, that someone had to live in the deplorable conditions and depths at the bottom of that hill, that such inequality exists in the first place? We tend as a culture to celebrate the success and ignore the fact that people are contending with unequal starting lines. Thus, the beloved and powerful narrative of upward mobility actually legitimates inequality. As long as we believe people can escape the inferior conditions of deprivation in which they are living, somehow we are basically OK with inequality – indeed, we celebrate it. 

Speaking in Selma on March 6, 2015, President Barack Obama framed his ideal of justice in terms of this narrative of upward mobility, asserting to his audience, “We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.”

Whether you agree this is a just society or not, what I am suggesting is that we implicitly endorse economic inequality with the concept of upward class mobility. At the very moment we speak of a middle class, a notion that automatically implies at least one class above and another below, we are talking about an unequal society. 

We might decide that some inequality is desirable, but we at least have to get clear on the objective. Saying we want equality and then engaging in behaviors sure to generate inequality is either a fool’s errand or a dishonest pursuit.

We are skilled in our culture in looking inequality in the face and denying it, or worse, calling it equality.

Nicholas Fitz, for example, recently reported in Scientific American, “According to Pew Research, most Americans believe the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, but 60 percent believe that most people can make it if they’re willing to work hard. Senator Marco Rubio says that America has ‘never been a nation of haves and have nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, of people who have made it and people who will make it.’ Sure, we love a good rags-to-riches story, but perhaps we tolerate such inequality because we think these stories happen more than they actually do.”

It’s not hard to see that even saying we are a country of “haves” and “soon-to-haves” bespeaks at once the recognition of and the wish to deny the reality of inequality.

Equality of opportunity – the novel

Another powerful story we love to tell ourselves is that equality means equality of opportunity. The political discourse in vogue these days doesn’t like to speak about inequality but instead focuses on the opportunity gap. Transforming the issue of equality into one of opportunity is, perhaps, even more damaging to the debate over income inequality than the upward mobility narrative. Through such a distortion, inequality becomes normalized at both the beginning and end. It doesn’t acknowledge or see as important the unequal starting lines people face, and it endorses inequality of outcome. That is, we accept the outcomes of economic inequality – and thus inequities in political and social power – with the justification that everyone had an equal opportunity to succeed or fail.

Thus, the “equal opportunity” narrative basically gives license in our culture for some to seize opportunity to achieve wealth and therefore power over others. It is a version of the meritocracy fable: you get what you deserve. If you can’t feed your kids, that’s your fault; the situation is just, as everyone had a chance.

We need to recognize the reality of our world. It is true, in some sense, that anybody can make it. We see inspiring success stories all the time.  But it is equally true that while anybody can make it, the system doesn’t allow that everybody can. That is, even if everybody earned advanced degrees, someone will still have to do the necessary work of picking the cabbages, cleaning the floors, stocking shelves at the store, driving trucks. Everybody can’t be a lawyer or doctor, as we have a whole range of socially necessary labor that has to be done to make our lives possible. 

We have to ask ourselves why someone doing socially necessary labor and spending the work week doing it to enable all of our lives should somehow be valued less or have less access to social resources. To repeat, we shouldn’t be requiring people to constantly acquire new skills in an effort to increase the supposed “value” of their work or to maintain access to social services; we should be reconsidering the way we value the work people do to make our lives possible.

The great American hero: The rugged individual

This issue brings me to last of the dominant cultural narratives I want to discuss: American individualism. This one relates to and really underpins all the others. We accommodate ourselves to and accept a society whose internal dynamics of necessity generate inequality because we comprehend the world through the lens of individual success or failure. That is, when we look at the world through an individualist lens, we think about people’s success and failure as bearing a direct relation to their talents, abilities, and efforts. It has nothing to do with the system.

As I mentioned, when we look at our world and recognize that it’s true anybody can make it, but that the system doesn’t allow for everybody to make it, then we might assess inequality in our world differently. Our meritocratic narrative might fall away if we see that our system necessarily generates inequality, that it’s not a result of people’s lack of ability, will, or effort.

Looking beyond the individual and thinking systemically, though, really strains and pushes back against a powerful thought tendency in our culture. As an example, consider a 2014 study done by the Harvard Business School titled An Economy Doing Half Its Job. The study points out that while large and midsize businesses had been performing strongly coming out of the Great Recession, “middle-class and working-class citizens [were] struggling.” This “divergence,” the study argues, is “unsustainable,” underscoring corporate America’s self-interest in improving the overall standard of living in the United States, warning, “Businesses cannot thrive for long while their communities languish.”

What we see is that the study initially identifies the problem as a systemic one – the economy is doing only half its job. Interestingly though, the study cannot sustain the initial systemic focus that seems to guide it – and that the title suggests – but rather retreats into a focus on the individual. While seeing as futile any policy to “redistribute gains,” Harvard’s optimism rests in a call to “invest and set policies to make Americans so productive that they can command higher wages even in the face of these dynamics [of globalization and technological change].”

In short, the study calls for more of the same, accepting the basic framework of an unequal class society and simply asking people to increase their value within the current framework of the capitalist marketplace. Not for a second does it seriously entertain the option of redistributing wealth and re-thinking our basic standards of fairness, equity, and value. The onus is put on individuals to somehow improve their lives in a system that the study already indicated is only half-working. Why not think about the system as the problem? Again, everybody can’t simply get new jobs because. Someone still needs to pick those cabbages and get the basic work of the world done to make all of our lives possible.

What if instead of asking people to increase their value, we transformed the way we value people and their work?

We need to think about what we mean by equality and if we really want an equal society or are content with the inequality we currently accept and even celebrate. If we decide as a culture we do want a genuinely equal society, do we need to transform our system or can we simply change our individual behaviors in some way or adopt a new set values in the current system? How do we relate a concept of fairness with the value of equality?

Why are we all driving Cadillacs in our dreams?

Above I raised the question of what it is that we really want when it comes to achieving, or not, equality in our world. In short, the question is about what we dream for and aspire to as a culture and a people, and how the desires informing our dreams and aspirations guide our political and social behaviors.

The way we define the “American Dream” no doubt plays a major role in disarming our ability to imagine equality. As a culture, the “American Dream” is always talked about not just in terms of individual achievement, but frequently in terms of individual acquisition and ownership. Typically, the rendering of the American Dream is dominated by images of individuals working hard, owning a home, and creating a better material life for their children.

This rendering of the dream, if you think about, is really divorced from the larger ideals we purport to hold as a collective, as a nation. Why is it we are not conditioned to dream about a world in which people aren’t hungry, in which people are housed, in which all are educated, in which people have democratic rights and a voice in how political decisions impacting their lives are made, in which people enjoy equality?

One key precursor to meaningful social change will be transforming the content of our collective national dream so it connects to and comprehends our noblest and largest social ideals, most prominently the overarching ideal of equality. While in her song “Royals” pop-star phenom Lorde sings about “driving Cadillacs in our dreams,” we need instead to sing about living free and equal in our dreams.

Let us begin now as a community to consider our ideals together and figure out how to realize them. Let’s develop a culture of collective problem-solving.

Tim Libretti is a professor of English. This article is based on the keynote address he delivered at the recent launch of the Northeastern Illinois University College of Arts and Sciences’ Economic Inequality Initiative.

Photo: 1959 Cadillac tailfin.  |  Christer Johannson 


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.