I shared the graph to the left a while back on FB. It is a frightening image to me because most of the wealthy people I’ve seen don’t have a clue how the other half live yet they represent us in congress. Ignorant comments like the ones Ann Romney made during the campaign–first implying that Mitt and she were once “so poor they ate pasta and tuna” (which puts her almost at the middle class) and later admitting that they’d never actually had a financial struggle–ought to cause those of us who truly live pay check to pay check concern. Great concern. Why? Because her comments reveal a mind set held not just by Ann Romney but by many of those who we have intrusted to look out for the common good, who we expect to put the financial interests of the many ahead of the financial interest of the few but who can’t fulfill their duties to do so because they just don’t get it. The Ann Romneys of the world think eating pasta and tuna is roughing it! The reality that 17 million children go to bed hungry every night is simply NOT on their radar.
Here are some other reasons for concern. The bottom 80 percent of Americans own only 5 percent of the financial wealth in this country and that number has been declining. Scarier still, we think we own considerably more. In a 2010 survey conducted by Norton and Ariely most people (from all walks of life not just the wealthy) guessed that the bottom 40 percent owned approximately 8-10 percent of the financial wealth while in fact the bottom 40 percent own only .3 percent of the wealth–that’s point 3 percent. When asked what the ideal distribution of wealth would be these same responders said they thought the bottom 40 percent should own between 25 and 30 percent of the total wealth. That’s at least 15 percent more than they assumed the bottom 40 percent of the population owned and 24.7 percent more than the real figures. Additionally, those surveyed believed the top 20 percent should own between 30 and 40 percent of the nation’s wealth not the 60 percent they predicted it had nor the 85 percent it actually has.
If we do not realize where we actually stand financially how can we hope to be represented fairly? Less than 7 percent of our Senators and Congressmembers experience the same financial concerns as the bottom 80 percent of population, while over 80 percent are among the top 10 percent of the nation’s wealthiest citizens. Thus the wealthy are well represented in government even before they are influenced by special interest groups, lobbyists, and out of control campaign financing.
Statistically the idea of pulling oneself up by your bootstraps has faded into the realm of myth and legend. In truth wealth begets wealth in this country and a key factor is education. According to Sean F. Reardon, professor of sociology and education at Standford University, “the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.” Reardon explains in his NY Times on-line article, No Rich Child Left Behind,that the differences are not confined to academic outcomes but that “the rich-poor gaps in student participation in sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and church attendance have grown sharply as well.” His research concludes that wealth allows parents to spend more time with their children, provide them with more “stimulating cognitive experiences”, and gives them access to “higher quality childcare”, all of which contribute to a wealthy child entering the K through 12 school system at a higher readiness to learn. Add to that scenario the reality that the rich can also afford a wide range of non-school activities and have a greater access to top quality private schools which statistically lead to better colleges and universities and in the end higher paying jobs and the entrenched pattern of wealth begetting wealth emerges.
What has been left unsaid in this situation can be found somewhere between the lines and reveals the rest of the story. When middle and lower income families need to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet they don’t have extra time to read to their children, or bring them to various activities nor do they have the means to provide them with “stimulating cognitive experiences” outside of school such as the theatre, the symphony, or science camp. Additionally, funding for public schools is generally connected to property values so wealthier districts end up with greater access to quality equipment, books, special needs and advanced placement classes, lower student teacher and student counselor ratios, a wider variety of courses, more innovative teaching methods, and fully funded school sponsored activities like sports, speech and debate, and music programs. The icing on the cake is the fact that while the national average is 12 percent, 37 percent of Congressmembers and 45 percent of Senators send their children to private schools removing their personal motivation to improve the public school system.
The gap will continue to widen unless the 80 percent–that’s us–insist that 100 percent of those elected to represent us do so. We may have the best political system on earth but it only works when the people are willing to function as part of the checks and balances. We, the people of the United States of America, must participate in order to form a more perfect union. In one of her pre-election interviews Ann Romney scoffed that Mitt didn’t need to be president for a job, meaning that the money wasn’t important. Perhaps it’s time we elect a few different representatives, men and women who do need the job or at least who feel a greater obligation to earn their pay!