A New Gilded Age

What is happening right now with the Illinois budget in Springfield is pitiful. Advocates and human services officials can do little more than fight over, and try to protect, what few scraps and breadcrumbs remain for the poor and, increasingly, for the middle class.

Even programs that would save money in the long run are on the block: drug treatment that can reduce incarceration costs; child care that enables low income parents to work; home care for the aged so they can stay out of more expensive institutional care. We are throwing budgetary common sense out the window even as we inflict more pain on populations in need.

As disturbing as these cuts are, there is something that should trouble us even more. We are failing to recognize why all these budget battles are necessary. They are what happens when as a nation we are no longer willing to invest in collective social needs. This, in turn, is the consequence of our massive inequality of wealth, greater now than at any time since 1928 just before the Great Depression.

We have created our own Gilded Age, described by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book Winner Take All Politics. They note that the share of income earned by the wealthiest 1 percent in this country increased from 9 percent in 1974 to over 23 percent in 2007. The share of the top .1 percent has grown from 2.7 percent to over 12 percent of income.

Why does such disparity in wealth matter? It destroys our sense of community. We become separated from each other geographically, economically, and ultimately spiritually. We are less likely to care about our neighbors and to understand what is happening to them. We become a society of a comfortable “us” and invisible “them.”

Virtually all religions, not just Christianity, start with the moral precept “Love your neighbor.” By this standard, our country today is on the verge not only of financial, but of moral bankruptcy as well.

What can we do? We can recognize that the inequalities we are experiencing today come not from the operation of free markets, but from policies favoring the rich. Unions have been constrained (which is what makes what is happening in Wisconsin so important), the financial industry de-regulated, and corporate leaders allowed to amass huge wealth even as their businesses failed or stagnated. All of this has been achieved through effective organizing of business interests and a massive accumulation of money directed toward lobbyists and political campaigns.

What can we do? We must see this concentration of political and economic power for what it is, and begin to chip away at it. There are few quick fixes — after all, it took us 35 years to get here. But we can fight for measures nationally and in Illinois that will alter the current concentration of economic and political power: measures such as progressive taxation, investments in education, job training, increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit. We can try to help our democracy start functioning again through political reform, especially public financing of elections.

We will not regain our sense of community and concern for the common good in a year, or five years, or even ten. But ultimately this is what we must fight for. The current budget hearings in Springfield are a fight over the meager spoils of the wrong battle. We have corrected the excesses of capitalism in earlier eras of our history. We must do so again.

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