The trouble with the American Dream
Washington - President Barack Obama's populist vision of a fairer US society
comes at a time when the American Dream is becoming tougher to achieve after
three decades of rising inequality, experts said on Wednesday.
With a US election in his sights, Obama used his State of the Union speech
to urge large tax hikes on the rich - no doubt mindful that his opponent could
well be Mitt Romney, a multi-millionaire Republican venture capitalist.
But the economic knockabout between Obama's Democrats and the Republicans
fails to conceal that successive administrations of both political colours have
presided over an ever-widening wealth gap, according to analysts.
"The American Dream is in trouble right now," Dr David Madland,
director of the American Worker Project at the Centre for American Progress
think-tank, said. "It is becoming harder and harder to achieve than it
"There is a perception among a lot of folks that the game is rigged,
and there is a widespread view that those at the top have figured out a way
that benefits only them," Madland said.
Some of the most comprehensive research on income inequality in the United
States has been conducted by the Brookings Institution think-tank and The Pew
Their joint report "Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and
Well?" cited official data that showed between 1979 and 2004, the real
after-tax income of the poorest one-fifth of Americans rose by 9%.
But in the same period, the richest one-fifth saw a 69% rise, and the top 1%
enjoyed a 176% increase.
The same report showed that the jump in chief executive pay, when compared
against employees, was even bigger - between 1978 and 2005, CEO pay increased
from 35 times to nearly 262 times the average worker's earnings.
Such disparities were seized on by the anti-capitalist pressure group Occupy
Wall Street, whose protests in New York spread nationwide last autumn although
the movement's momentum has since foundered for lack of a clear strategy.
However, Erin Currier, project manager for Pew's Economic Mobility Project,
said the rise of Occupy had coincided with increased vigilance from policy
experts in the past year to influence Obama's call for a fairer economy.
"Americans can now see a clear role for government and will hold their
feet to the fire," Currier said.
Asked if the American Dream was alive and well, Currier replied: "Yes
and no," noting that incomes of the nation's current bottom fifth had
exceeded those of their parents "in absolute terms", but the same
group "had not moved up the economic escalator", and was still stuck
in the lowest 20%.
"That goes against our nation's basic idea of fairness and equality of
opportunity," she added, citing a four-year university degree, savings and
assets, and a good neighbourhood as the three keys to moving up the ladder.
While the quest to create jobs remains the central issue of the US election
campaign, the levels of tax paid by US citizens has marched up the agenda since
presidential hopeful Romney revealed that in 2010 he paid a rate of only 13.9%,
much less than most Americans who pay more than 30%.
Obama said in his speech that millionaires should pay at least 30%.
But politicians are to blame for allowing such unfairness, said David Cay
Johnston, a tax expert and author of Free Lunch: How the
wealthiest Americans enrich themselves at government expense and stick you with
Separate and unequal
In 1961, when John F Kennedy was US president, the top 390 Americans paid an
average of 42% in federal income, according to Johnston's research.
But by 2008, that tax rate for the "richest" had fallen to 18%,
while in the same period the bottom 90% of Americans saw their rate dip only
marginally - from 9.6% to 7.2%.
"One group's tax rate fell 24% and the other's fell 2.4%,"
"America has two income tax systems, separate and unequal," he
said, noting that wage earners and most businesses are taxed thoroughly and
efficiently, while investment fund managers "are taxed very lightly".
"But it's all entirely legal," Johnston added.