Forget ISIS and Ebola. Inequality is the thing that concerns most Americans, survey finds.
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Romans 8:15)
If your only window on the wider world was CNN or Fox News, you might be excused for thinking that ISIS and Ebola have Americans cowering in darkened bedrooms. The greatest physical threats to our individual wellbeing remain heart disease, cancer, auto accidents, gun violence and even furniture tipping, which injures or kills over 40,000 Americans a year.
Nevertheless, the media are doing their best to convince us that the Muslim horde and a virus from Africa are poised to kill us all.
Fortunately, the American people are smarter than that, a conclusion confirmed by a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Pew surveyed over 48,000 people in 44 countries across the globe, asking them to rank five major threats — nuclear weapons, AIDS and other diseases, pollution and the environment, religious and ethnic hatred, and inequality — in order of importance; in other words, what worries them the most.
The results varied widely from region to region and country to country, but in most industrial or postindustrial nations, including the United States, inequality was the leading concern. Twenty-seven percent of Americans chose inequality as the greatest threat we face, with religious and ethnic hatred coming in second at 25% and nuclear weapons in third place at 23%. Pollution was a distant fourth at 15% and disease fifth at 7%.
As these results suggest, the average American understands that economic inequality, if unaddressed, puts the wellbeing of families at risk, undermines the social compact itself and could ultimately threaten the very survival of our democratic republic. Compared to the relatively tiny chance of death by terrorist attack or Ebola, the stakes involved in economic inequality are much higher, and much more easily addressed.
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote that “as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.” [Emphasis mine]
What "social ills" could the Holy Father mean? In addition to poverty itself, there’s abortion, which is disproportionately accessed by women on the economic margins of modern society; addictions of all kinds, which prey on the hopelessness of the poor; the collapse of marriage, which in the United States has become the single best predictor of poverty, especially among children; depression and suicide, especially among the young; and a host of other evils, including the rise of radical movements and political violence.
Economic inequality can be looked at in two ways: income and wealth. There is an intimate connection between the two, of course — in the same way that an income and expense statement is related to a balance sheet — but by either measure, the reality in the United States is grim and growing grimmer. On income, the gap between the bottom 90% of Americans and the top 10%, 1% and .01% is greater than it has been since 1928, the year before the onset of the Great Depression.
Between 1966 and 2011, the real income — that is, adjusted for inflation — of the bottom 90% grew by an average of $59. During the same period, real incomes for the top 10% grew by an average of $116,000, for the top 1% by $628,000, and for the top .01% by over $18 million. This trend has only accelerated since the Great Recession of 2008. In the past five years, virtually all gains in income have accrued to the top 10%, with the top 1% siphoning off 81% of that income. During that period,