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Income disparity is tearing us apart

NONFICTION

Toxic Inequality: How America's Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide & Threatens Our Future

By Thomas M. Shapiro

Basic Books

225 pages, $28

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It

By Richard V. Reeves

Brookings Institution Press

156 pages, $24

By Peter Simon

These books, although far different in style, convey the same urgent message: It is time to do something immediate and dramatic about income inequality.

And that, the authors write, will require the haves to share both opportunity and resources with the have-nots.

"It has become a staple of politicians to declare the American dream dying or dead," writes Reeves, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. "But it is not dead. It is alive and well, but it being hoarded by those of us in the upper middle class. The question is: Will we share it?"

Shapiro and Reeves, like many authors before them, say previously comfortable middle-class Americans are being pushed to their limits and beyond by a precipitous decline in manufacturing jobs, globalization, wage stagnation and laws and regulations that, often with little public awareness, fortify the power of the upper-middle class.

Short of dramatic and unexpected change, the gap will widen beyond repair.

"The time has come for a reset," said Shapiro, a professor of law and social policy at Brandeis University. "None of us can thrive in a nation divided between a small number of people3 who possess an ever-larger portion of the income and wealth and everyone else increasingly grasping for a declining share and feeling real pain."

These books are very similar in outlook, but different in approach.

Shapiro's is based largely on extensive interviews with families in 1998 and 1999, and again, with those same families, in 2010 to 2012. While comprehensive and credible, it nearly swallows itself up with facts and data, Despite revealing segments on the lives of those interviewed, the writing is thick and scholarly and by no means a quick read.

Reeves, delivering much the same message, is, in contrast, in your face, speaking to you more personally and assuming his readers are -- like him -- upper-middle class by virtue of yearly household incomes of more than $112,000.  He feels conservatives wiggle out of the dilemmas created by inequality by blaming the poor or immigrants, while liberals fault the super-rich.

In fact, he said, "if you really want a fairer and more socially mobile society, there is no avoiding an uncomfortable, attendant fact: more of our kids will have to be downwardly mobile."

To encourage equity, Reeves urges measures that would give moderate and lower-income families greater access to homes in good neighborhoods, better schools, opportunities for prestigious professional internships while in college, quality vocational training and home visits to mothers or pregnant women by social workers or nurses.

Shapiro's suggestions are more sweeping and dramatic.

He favors a federal job guarantee, which would place unemployed or underemployed workers in public benefit jobs at an enhanced minimum wage.

All children, Shapiro says, should be provided $500 savings accounts -- and more for low-income children --to encourage savings for college, home ownership or retirement. He also calls for the easing of legal barriers for the creation of unions, universal pre kindergarten and tougher enforcement of non-discrimination laws.

Minorities are hit especially hard by the economic squeeze, Shapiro says.

"African-Americans' historical disadvantage has become baked into the American economy," he said. "Our institutions grew out of an assumed, everlasting, politically dominant white majority. The nation has not yet imagined who we are together."

Peter Simon is a former Buffalo News reporter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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