The poor and the middle class will save America yet

Why there's still reason to hold out hope for social justice in this country despite growing income inequality


Robert Reich
August 30, 2013 4:00PM (UTC)

A few days ago I had breakfast with a man who had been one of my mentors in college, who participated in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and has devoted much of the rest of his life in pursuit of equal opportunity for minorities, the poor, women, gays, immigrants — and also for average hardworking people who have been beaten down by the economy. Now in his mid-80s, he’s still active.

I asked him if he thought America would ever achieve true equality of opportunity.

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“Not without a fight,” he said. “Those who have wealth and power and privilege don’t want equal opportunity. It’s too threatening to them.They’ll pretend equal opportunity already exists, and that anyone who doesn’t make it in America must be lazy or stupid or otherwise undeserving.”

“You’ve been fighting for social justice for over half a century. Are you discouraged?”

“Not at all!” he said. “Don’t confuse the difficulty of attaining a goal with the urgency of fighting for it.”

“But have we really made progress? Inequality is widening. The middle class and the poor are in many ways worse off than they were decades ago.”

“Yes, and they’re starting to understand that,” he said. “And beginning to see that the distinction between the middle class and poor is disappearing. Many who were in the middle have fallen into poverty; many more will do so.”

“And, so?”

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He smiled. “For decades, those at the top have tried to convince the middle class that their economic enemies are minorities and the poor. But that old divide-and-conquer strategy is starting to fail. And as it fails, it will be possible to create a political coalition of the poor and the middle class. It will be a powerful coalition! Remember, demographics are shifting. Soon America will be a majority of minorities. And women are gaining more and more economic power.”

“But the 400 richest Americans are now wealthier than the bottom 150 million Americans put together — and have more political influence than ever.”

“Just you wait,” he laughed. “I wish I had another 50 years in me.”


Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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