While the pandemic crushed dreams, shuttered businesses, closed schools and left millions jobless, the wealthy reaped a bonanza and watched their net worth more than double. They became richer while the poor got poorer. Already at historic heights before the pandemic, wealth inequality by many measures now is worse than during the Gilded Age, dividing the country into haves and have-nots. And that endangers us all by cutting social mobility, killing dreams, reducing opportunity, increasing crime and empowering authoritarians.
In this episode, Common Ground with Jane Whitney examines the consequences of the stark cleavage, the values that drive economic policy and the connections between our political and economic crises.
A “New Dealer” and economic populist who aligns with the left in his fierce critique of what he sees as America’s class-based politics, Sohrab Ahmari is a conservative cultural crusader who challenges party orthodoxy on economic policy and issues of inequality.
Formerly a mainstay at the Wall Street Journal and New York Post, Ahmari has carved a niche in conservative media for advancing middle-of-the-road ideas on economics. He blames big business for driving inequality, denounces conservative conspiracy theories about Europe’s economic troubles and in 2022 co-founded Compact Magazine with conservative and Marxist colleagues to criticize liberalism from the left and the right.
In his recently published book, Tyranny, Inc., Ahmari argues that American capitalism’s “general tendency is the domination of working- and middle-class people by the owners of capital, the asset-less by the asset-rich.” In an August Newsweek piece, he left no ambiguity to his standing: “I Was Wrong,” the title reads. “The GOP Will Never Be the Party of the Working Class.”
Born in Tehran, Ahmari moved to the United States during his teenage years. But his intellectual journey has been even more peripatetic: his religious and intellectual evolution has taken him from Marxist atheist to mainstream neoconservative to neo-traditionalist Catholic. The author of five books – on topics such as the Arab Spring, the politicization of art, and his journey to Catholicisim – Ahmari advocates for a populist conservatism that celebrates social democracy alongside social traditionalism.
Jahana Hayes is the American Dream, the Democratic congresswoman often says.
As a young woman, she seemed destined to follow a familial pattern of inner city pathology - teenage mother and then addict in the Waterbury projects.
That’s the road taken by her mother. And her grandmother.
Like them, she became pregnant as a 17-year-old. But, unlike them, she climbed out of the quicksand of intergenerational poverty. Fueled by unyielding determination, she finished high school, then college and then earned a graduate degree. She worked the entire time but was able to juggle the competing demands of being a student while taking care of a child because she received public assistance and several grants.
It paid off for her, her community and the county. She was named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. Then, capping a truncated campaign that elevated her from political obscurity to national prominence, she in 2018 became the first African American woman from Connecticut in the House of Representatives.
In Congress, she has been a voice for people left out of the system, an ardent supporter of the social safety net and expansive government benefit programs, which she says serve as an escalator for people who aren’t born into the ‘club.' A member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, she has fought for legislation that seeks to help low income youth by targeting their snafus – gun violence, hunger, disconnectedness from their schools and community.
“I am what government looks like,” the three-term congresswoman often says in explaining how various public programs were vital in helping her rise from the Waterbury projects to the hallways of Congress. “I know what it’s like to go to bed to gunshots outside,” she said during her first campaign. “I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning to a dead body in the hallway.”
David Leonhardt is a senior writer for The New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his expansive commentary on economic issues, ranging from the financial crisis to the federal budget deficit.
A reporter with expertise in politics, economics, and healthcare, Leonhardt has channeled his knowledge of these areas into journalism about inequality, which he has covered in the many roles he has had during his 25 years at the Times: as an op-ed columnist, Washington bureau chief, co-host of “The Argument” podcast, founding editor of The Upshot section, and a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. Currently, he writes their highly successful The Morning daily newsletter, which has garnered over 17 million subscribers.
In his forthcoming book, Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream, Leonhardt writes about the decline of the American Dream, tracing the history of the country’s economy from the Great Depression to the Great Stagnation. He presents a narrative of the American economy as a clash between a version of capitalism that promises upward mobility and another that benefits the wealthy.
“The main reason most people are not out-earning their parents is that the gains from our economic growth goes so disproportionately to a small group of people at the top,” Leonhardt said in an interview with NPR.
Leonhardt won the Gerald Loeb Award for magazine writing in 2009 for a Times Magazine article, "Obamanomics." He is the author of the 2013 e-book, Here’s the Deal: How Washington Can Solve the Deficit and Spur Growth.
Alissa Quart, a journalist, poet, and nonfiction author who focuses on the American family, poverty and income inequality, is the Executive Director and co-editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit committed to supporting journalism on inequality and poverty, often told from a firsthand perspective.
Quart, who has called “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” individualism “America’s most dangerous myth,” has written two nonfiction books about inequality: Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, and the 2022 Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the Self-Made Myth.
In Bootstrapped, she writes about the current state of the American Dream, criticizing what she considers to be a uniquely American obsession with individualism and self-reliance that underpins contemporary politics. “I receive messages from strangers about how the poor are responsible for their own poverty on a routine basis,” she notes in the book’s introduction. This foundational myth, she argues, propagates the idea that “those who are economically on the edge…just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
In its review of Bootstrapped, The Atlantic wrote that Quart “urges readers to rethink their narratives of accomplishment [and] encourages us to stop shaming others, and ourselves, for needing assistance and to acknowledge the ways we are all interdependent.”
Quart is a contributor to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Thoughts and Prayers and Monetized, and the 2004 book on consumer marketing directed towards youth, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers.