Global Ethics Corner: Occupy Wall Street: Does Rising Income Inequality Threaten American Democracy?

October 14, 2011

Does rising income inequality pose a threat to American democracy?

This question has long been taboo in American politics. Yet as "Occupy Wall Street" spreads across the United States, the political consequences of income inequality are grabbing headlines as never before.

The income gap in the U.S. has risen steadily since the 1970s. Today, it's the highest in the developed world.

The statistics are daunting: 1 percent of Americans account for a quarter of the nation's wealth. And while the nation's rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer. Today, one in six Americans lives in poverty.

Many of those occupying Wall Street argue that mounting income inequality threatens our democracy.

They warn that as America's middle class dwindles, its ability to affect political change shrinks. Recent cuts to education, healthcare, and other public services only diminish opportunities for those without independent wealth.

Critics of "Occupy Wall Street" have denounced such claims as class warfare. They have labeled protestors as Communists, populists, and anti-American. The key to success in America lies in individuals' resolve to rise above difficult circumstances. Governments, they say, should play no role in this.

But protestors counter that without access to equal education and health care, the majority of Americans just can't compete with the wealthy. Cuts to basic services only lessen their chances for political participation. In this sense, income inequality may not be a question of just economic fairness, but of democratic values.

Which raises the question: When does income inequality become political inequality?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Timothy Noah, "The United States of Inequality," Slate Magazine, September 3, 2011

Sabrina Tavernise, "Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on 'Lost Decade'," The New York Times, September 13, 2011

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:

Carl Loven
David Shankbone
alan taylor
JJesús DQ
David Shankbone
Caroline Schiff Photography
Adam Jones
Howard Brier
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jon Husman/U.S. Navy
Columbia City Blog
C. G. P. Grey

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