AMY FRIED

Occupation and opportunity

Posted Dec. 06, 2011, at 4:33 p.m.

Our nation has changed as the distribution of wealth has become rather skewed.

Inflation-adjusted incomes of the very rich have exploded as middle incomes have stagnated and the middle class’ share of the nation’s wealth has decreased. Between 1979 and 2006, the average after-tax income of the top 1 percent grew by by 256 percent while the income of the middle 20 percent grew by 21 percent, according to “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class,” by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

Along with this uneven growth, “after-tax household income” for the top 1 percent “more than doubled” as a percentage of the U.S. incomes, while the lowest 80 percent declined by 2 to 3 percentage points between 1979 and 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Most people are troubled by these trends and by seeing education and health care on the chopping block while supporting increased taxes for the top 1 percent (who had average post-tax incomes of $1.2 million in 2006).

And citizens are bothered by by what authors Hacker and Pierson call, “winner-take-all politics.” Wealthy interests not only fund candidates, but lobby and organize to get policies making it easier for CEOs to avoid shareholder control and taxing large portions of executive compensation packages at rates lower than the average citizen’s. Lower taxes on multimillion-dollar estates are paid for by cuts to programs that serve the working poor and middle class.

But there has been something missing in the discussion — bigger than historical swings of the American political economy.

After all the incredible figures showing what a big shift in wealth has occurred, and after all the analyses of why and how this has occurred, the very most important thing of all has gotten short shrift.

And that’s what this means for everyday people.

What future, what opportunities are there for people today?

Will they be able to make their futures or will they face severe limits in life chances?

Think about this: When my mother went to college she was not only the first in her family to go, but her father was one of 11 children, a Polish immigrant and a factory worker at 12 years of age. And she went to a college that was free — zero tuition.

No, she didn’t get some incredible, special financial aid or incredible, special scholarship. Everyone at this public college had zero tuition.

Of course, this was not a Utopian period. African-Americans did not have the same degree of opportunity as white Americans.

But in the same period, millions upon millions of (mostly) young men got college educations and received technical training because of the G.I. Bill.

The G.I. Bill provided opportunity. Then and now, opportunity opens doors for those who are willing to move through and who have discipline and work habits.

Public colleges and universities used to offer low-cost, high-quality education, but as state spending on public higher education declined, tuition rose. Today, just 38 percent of UMaine’s budget is covered by state appropriations. In fiscal year 1979, the state covered 63 percent and tuition accounted for only 37 percent. Costs have shifted from a broad base of Maine residents to students and their parents, creating higher student loan burdens.

In years past, America had higher marginal taxes and a more equal income distribution, but what really mattered for people was public policy serving the the common good and individual opportunity.

A nation with a highly skewed distribution of wealth is a nation with less opportunity for people to make their way in the world.

As wealth flows upward and programs providing opportunity for hardworking individuals to live good lives are slashed, it’s harder to live the American dream.

Sad to say, while the United States used to be able to brag that it was easier for its citizens to move up in wealth than in other countries, now our nation’s economic mobility is lower than many industrialized nations.

Lesser opportunity doesn’t create a laissez-faire paradise but life options that can’t be pursued. Without opportunity, Americans have less economic freedom.

Now, life will always have its stresses. It will always have its human tragedies.

Yet politics and public policy can create conditions in which more can thrive.

And that’s why this matters — because we have the capacity to avoid dashed hopes and dreams deferred and can help people live fully and well.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ASFried and on her blog, pollways.com.

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