Are Americans in Denial About Inequality?

Sam Fulwood III explains why Mitt Romney’s overestimation of the middle class could very well be an indication of how unaware Americans are of the class divisions in this country.

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Occupy Wall Street protestors march in New York City near Zuccotti Park in October 2011. Occupy Wall Street began as a movement to expose the growing class stratification in America. (AP/Craig Ruttle)
Occupy Wall Street protestors march in New York City near Zuccotti Park in October 2011. Occupy Wall Street began as a movement to expose the growing class stratification in America. (AP/Craig Ruttle)

In an odd, roundabout way, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has given Americans an opportunity to witness what so many of us have steadfastly refused to acknowledge: Yes, America, we are a class-stratified society.

Of course, the former Massachusetts governor didn’t mean to do this. He probably laments having told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien last week that he wasn’t worried about the poor because they have a safety net to support them. Nor is he losing sleep over the plight of the wealthy. If, as I suspect, he meant exactly what he said, he leaves little doubt with his attempt to clarify. “I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 to 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling,” he explained.

So he believes that the overwhelming majority of Americans are in that great, nebulous economic cloud called the middle class (or “middle income,” in his words). It’s an easy mistake—most Americans would agree with him, believing the middle class is larger than it really is.

These days Americans seem more class-confused than class-conscious. A Gallup poll released last December suggests that Americans consider an annual household income of $150,000 to be rich—even though in the more expensive parts of our nation, this income is decidedly middle class. Figuring out who is poor is even more difficult. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last month, nearly 20 percent of households earning at the poverty level ($15,000 or less annually) believe they’re solidly middle class.

Clearly belief in the American Dream is alive and well, but in fact the middle class is shrinking. As the income of the top 1 percent skyrocketed to 24 percent of all income in 2007 from 9 percent in 1974, the share of income going to the middle 60 percent of Americans fell to 47 percent from 52 percent. From 2001 to 2007 incomes of the top 1 percent increased by 60 percent after adjusting for inflation, while the median income fell. More than one-third of our nation’s population is living on a low income and teetering on the edge of poverty. To top it off the United States now lags behind other developed countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden when it comes to economic mobility.

What’s more, most Americans seem less concerned about the poor or the disparity of incomes in our nation than they were earlier in the decade. The Gallup poll found that respondents were more dubious that economic disparity is real than they were eight years ago. Fifty-eight percent of those polled rejected the view that the United States is a nation of “haves” and “have-nots,” compared to it being nearly 50–50 in 2004, when former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards drew headlines for pointing out “two Americas.”

None of this should be surprising. In the face of historic protestations to the contrary, Americans don’t want to believe that our nation is rutted by rigid lanes of class stratification—seeing instead celebrated rags-to-riches tales throughout our history as the norm. But our society always has been defined by class all the way back to its founding days. In the beginning of the Republic, all citizens weren’t equal; franchise responsibilities rested only among the upper class—white, male property owners.

Denial that class truly existed separated the Founding Fathers’ lofty ideals from the Everyman’s (and Everywoman’s) place in society. For the New World’s experiment in representative democracy to take root, let alone succeed, every citizen had to believe that his or her opportunity in life was equal to a neighbor’s, not granted by a monarch or ordained by clergy.

That is the theory. In practice something else is true. The class divide continues to yawn across America. And despite legal attack and changed social norms, education inequality—fueled by economic inequality—continues to assist in the maintenance of a class-based status quo. Noting that many Americans prefer to imagine that class distinctions in the land “have blurred” or “some say they have disappeared,” The New York Times pointed to the contrary in a voluminous 2005 examination of class in America:

But class is still a powerful force in American life. Over the past three decades, it has come to play a greater, not lesser, role in important ways. At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains linked tightly to class. At a time when the country is increasingly integrated racially, the rich are isolating themselves more and more.

Today grassroots activists occupy public spaces in major cities and on college campuses with the cry, "We are the 99 percent." As the veil of denial rises, it reveals an awkward public discussion on the unfairness of America’s enduring, if hidden, class stratification.

“Tricking the poor to believe they’re in [the middle class], and allowing the rich to hide in it,” writes New York Times columnist Charles Blow, “is one of the great modern political deceptions and how we’ve arrived at our current predicament.”

Our political discussions—or lack thereof—surrounding class in America get politicians in hot water when they say something closer to the truth than we care to admit. Unwittingly, perhaps, this was the funhouse mirror Romney cracked—and possibly allowed Americans to catch a glimpse of ourselves as we are, not as we wish to be seen.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)