Monday, June 06, 2005

THE AMERICAN DREAM is about upward mobility. Starting at the bottom or near the bottom and making your way up. But the American Dream is increasingly out of reach for most Americans. The whole idea of economic mobility -- the fluid movement of workers through the social classes -- is becoming a thing of the past. It's not just about the income gap between the richest and the poorest. It's about the fact that the income gap is no longer bridgeable for the lowest paid Americans. The rate at which the rich get richer far outpaces the rate at which low-income workers can hope to increase their income. It's about the fact that college graduates are now competing with immigrants and unskilled workers for those minimum wage jobs. It's about Americans who are middle-aged or older and who in years past would be at the peak of their careers or ready to retire; but who are taking entry-level jobs that formerly would have gone to 20-somethings. It's about the fact that almost everyone has to work several jobs just to make ends meet, with no thought of getting ahead.

Bob Herbert calls it the "mobility myth," and he writes about it in his column today.

The war that nobody talks about - the overwhelmingly one-sided class war - is being waged all across America. Guess who's winning.

A recent front-page article in The Los Angeles Times showed that teenagers are faring poorly in a tight job market because of the fierce competition they're getting from older workers and immigrants for entry-level positions.

On the same day, in the business section, the paper reported that the chief executives at California's largest 100 companies took home a collective $1.1 billion in 2004, an increase of nearly 20 percent over the previous year. The paper contrasted that with the 2.9 percent raise that the average California worker saw last year.

The gap between the rich and everybody else in this country is fast becoming an unbridgeable chasm. David Cay Johnston, in the latest installment of the New York Times series "Class Matters," wrote, "It's no secret that the gap between the rich and the poor has been growing, but the extent to which the richest are leaving everybody else behind is not widely known."

Consider, for example, two separate eras in the lifetime of the baby-boom generation. For every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent of the population between 1950 and 1970, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162. That gap has since skyrocketed. For every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent between 1990 and 2002, Mr. Johnston wrote, each taxpayer in that top bracket brought in an extra $18,000.

It's like chasing a speedboat with a rowboat.

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