Can U.S. lead in solving income inequality?

Forget the naughty governors. The real news is that 85 people control as much wealth as half the world’s population.

With 7 billion people on the planet, that is amazing.

According to Oxfam, a global network of 17 anti-poverty and relief organizations, not only do the 85 richest people own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion people, but just 1 percent of the world’s population controls $110 trillion, or 65 times the total wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion.

Another finding of the Oxfam report, “Working for the Few,” is that 70 percent of everyone in the world lives in a country where income inequality has increased in the last 30 years.

You may already know that the United States is the worst, with the gap between rich and poor growing faster than any other nation. In America the 1 percenters got 95 percent of all economic growth from 2009 to 2012 while 90 percent of Americans got poorer. According to a study done at UC Berkeley, the top 1 percent of incomes grew by 31.4 percent while the bottom 99 percent grew by 0.4 percent.

“Income inequality” is somehow an inadequate, passionless term for the difference between a homeless family living in a car, wondering how they will brush their teeth, and someone with three mansions, a private jet and $5,000 to spend on one change of clothing.

President Obama’s speechwriters work desperately trying to make the topic of income disparity sexy. Obama has signaled repeatedly that he intends to make the growing wealth gap in America a key component of his second term.

Last month the president quoted Pope Francis: “How could it be that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

The Oxfam report claims that its polling shows that most people believe the laws of most if not all governments favor the rich. The only reaction to that should be, “Well, duh.”

Oddly, many Americans traditionally have not been worried about the gap between rich and poor. Nonetheless, there still is a wide belief in the United States that if you work hard and play by the rules, whatever they are now, you, too, can become rich, although the recent attention to the plight of the working poor in fast-food restaurants may be changing that.

The question is: What do we do about the growing gap between rich and poor?

The pope thinks capitalism is at fault, but in the United States that idea has as much appeal as a mashed potato sandwich.

Obama is far less radical. Put simply, he wants to change the fact that the richest people in America pay the lowest tax rates. Obama wants to equalize education opportunity so that the poor have an equal chance of being as well educated as the rich. And he wants to make certain that the poor have the same access to health care as the rich.

Once we all thought like that, except for the robber barons. But not now. Not in this decade. To many, such ideas sound like socialism. Or big government. Or too European to be sanctioned.

One bit of good news is that the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week has declared that economic inequality is a serious risk to human progress that will create social instability and threatens global security. This means even the really rich are starting to “get it.”

One would hope that America, which has done so much to show the world how to create prosperity, would lead the way to solving the increasingly serious problem of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Ann McFeatters is a columnist in Washington, D.C. She has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

© 2014, McClatchy-Tribune

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