The American news media and the blogosphere are filled with talk of inequality right now. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest in New York City has spread across the country, and the release last week of a report on income inequality from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has given some support to OWS protesters’ complaints about public policies that favor the rich. The CBO report indicates that while income in the Unites States has grown for everyone over the past three decades, it has grown far faster for the richest Americans. For the bottom quintile of American wage earners, income has increased just 18 percent since 1979, while income for the top 1 percent of earners has increased by a whopping 275 percent! According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, virtually all of the decline in the bottom 80 percent’s share of the nation’s income is reflected in an increase for the top 1 percent.
Such inequality is possible in the United States because of policy decisions made by those we elect to represent us—choices about what and what not to regulate. These policies and the resulting upward redistribution of wealth in the U.S. over the past thirty years have happened because we allowed them to happen.
Our system of representative democracy means citizens only need participate if we are interested enough to do so. We can influence the decisions of those we elect to represent us, run for office ourselves or get involved in issues that are important to us. Or we can choose not to participate.
This voluntary system assumes, however, that we all know how to participate, and that we all believe that our participation will make a difference. For many Americans, however, this assumption is not accurate. Public schools teach us about government but they don’t provide us with many opportunities to practice participatory skills like speaking at public hearings, working on a campaign for an issue or candidate, circulating petitions or working with community members to solve real-world problems. Schools also don’t provide us with access to people with influence, such as community leaders, business groups and politicians. Students usually spend more time analyzing literature and historical events than debating the pros and cons of current political issues.