Economy

The Year in Inequality: Lots of words, but will actions follow?

Pope Francis and President Obama contributed talk, but 2013 brought little tangible movement on economic injustice

More than two years after its big splash, the vocabulary of Occupy Wall Street began to resonate.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Occupy Wall Street began more than two years ago with a bang as loud as a thousand bongo drums. It essentially vanished from the public eye a few months later when New York police cordoned off Zuccotti Park and forcibly removed its new occupants under the cover of night and a media blackout.

But despite its quick end two years ago, the conversation Occupy started is just beginning to gain traction in the United States.

OWS members may no longer be on street corners, but the movement’s vocabulary of economic injustice, previously common only on college campuses, has become more accessible to a wide variety of Americans.

This year, as the disparity between rich and poor continued to grow to levels not seen since 1928, the nation’s new consciousness about the economy allowed income inequality to take hold of the country’s conscience.

Indeed, 2013 was the year of thinking and talking about income inequality.

As judged by how frequently we search Google, Americans’ curiosity about income inequality has been high since Occupy started in 2011, but recently spiked beyond 2011’s levels — and the conversation extended well beyond the Internet.

Perhaps the poster-boy of this new worldwide focus is Pope Francis, who made a habit of creating headlines with pot-stirring statements on wealth and inequality, which often sound more like the teachings of a Marxist college professor than the sermons of a contemporary religious leader.

“...Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

The pope has denied being a full-fledged communist but said he has nothing against them.

Regardless of his card-carrying status, Pope Francis struck a nerve in 2013.  Some 64 percent of people polled recently by Public Policy Polling said the pope was the right choice for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year award.

And he wasn’t the only leader that captured the zeitgeist on inequality.

New York City Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio coasted through the election, winning by wide margins not only against a Republican, but against more well-established, more moderate Democratic rivals. His campaign framed New York as “tale of two cities,” and De Blasio promised his main priority would be addressing the growing wealth gap.

President Barack Obama also ramped up his rhetoric on the issue, calling inequality “the defining issue of our time,” in a speech earlier in December.

The year also saw thousands protesting outside Walmarts and fast-food restaurants for better pay, and a higher minimum wage in cities across the country.

But 2013 wasn’t only the year of inequality because of rhetoric and protests. Much like Occupy Wall Street was a response to the financial crisis of 2008, the surge in speech surrounding inequality in 2013 can been seen as response to the unequal conditions many Americans face.

In other words, the concept of inequality was so popular in 2013, because 2013 was a year of near-unprecedented income inequality.

This year, there were revelations that median wages have remained flat for 10 years, that corporations continued to receive record-breaking tax breaks, that CEO pay has risen astronomically in the past few decades, and that the bottom and top income brackets continue to grow further apart.

While there were some minor policy changes passed that could help lessen that gap — such as many local minimum-wage campaigns; there were many, such as repeated cuts to food stamps and unemployment benefits, that seem to promise to widen the chasm further.

But the conversation has begun and if 2013 was a year of public awareness about income inequality, maybe 2014 will be the year something is done about it.

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