WASHINGTON, D.C., December 11, 2012 ― The rich have become progressives’ scapegoats, blamed for everything from budget deficits to the economic recession. Look at the polls; it works. Democrats’ attempts at working class populism are convincing the large number of Americans who want to be wealthy, but do not know (or think they know) any wealthy people.
This anti-rich phenomenon can be squarely placed on migration.
Over the last forty years the top two percent - those making more than $200,000 according to 2006 numbers - have steadily been migrating from their old neighborhoods, which were built on ethnic cohesion, for communities based upon relatable brackets of income and wealth.
My dad was born poor, eldest of eleven children, to a devoutly Catholic mother and a soldier-turned-truck-driver father. They lived in a rented house in Maspeth, Queens – a working-class, white-ethnic neighborhood, where his father’s family had lived since they emigrated from Poland a century before he was born.
After graduating from an all-boys Catholic high school, Dad bummed around from job to job before joining the marines. After an honorable discharge, he became a cop, reaching the level of a first-grade detective. In spite his lack of a college education, he started his own company and economically surpassed his working-class kin. Last year, he decided to leave Queens and the working ethnic neighborhoods of his youth behind for good and moved into a private community on Long Island. This was the final physical divorce of what had been a decade-long mental separation.
The physical isolation that has grown as the wealthy have abandoned their old communities has sown the seeds of discontent for many Americans, but between the walls of these gated communities lies a deep cultural divide: political, education, wealth, race, military service, and religious attendance. This physical and cultural rift has created an environment of class warfare where, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, people “will eat the rich.”
The movement of people out of their old neighborhoods hasn’t been sudden, but it is dramatic nonetheless. Pitkin County, Colorado has a population of 17,000, 88 percent non-Latino White. Fifty-seven percent of the population over the age of 25 has earned a bachelor’s degree, and the county has an average household income of $134,267. In neighboring Lake County, which has a population of 7,400, 57 percent of which is non-Latino white, only 25 percent of the population over the age of 25 has earned a bachelors degree, and the county has an average income of $49,400. The wealth gap is nearly one hundred and seventy-two percent.
The residents of Lake County, who service the stores where Pitkin County residents shop, will never know their Pitkin neighbors through more than a passing glance at the checkout.
In Charles Murray’s landmark work Coming Apart: The State of White America, the author details two towns; one of blue-collar Caucasian workers, and another of white-collar Caucasian workers, aptly named Fishtown and Belmont respectively. In Fishtown, social capital has diminished, only 48 percent of the 30-49 year-old cohort is married, one in eight are out of the labor force, and parental involvement in PTA, Little League Baseball and Football, the Boy Scouts, and Brownies is a shaddow of what it once was. Amongst the white working-class, weekly church service attendance for high school dropouts is just 23 percent; it is 37 percent for high school graduates with little or no college. This is a world away from Belmont, and that’s if you do not include the additional data of minority and immigrant communities.
America has never been a classless society, and there have always been wealthier people and neighborhoods, from the Southern Aristocrats to the New York bankers to the Pittsburgh industrialists.
There was a time, however, when professional people stayed in the hometowns they were raised after they had “made it.” Before George Jefferson moved on up, Atticus Finch was a well-respected lawyer who lived and raised his children in his hometown in Alabama. Those who stay now are often in a niche market or have a special mindset that values localism. Either way, this mass mobility of the best, brightest, and highest earning from towns and cities into little gated communities and wealthy zip codes has fanned the flame of class warfare.
To a certain extent, the top two percent have embittered the 98 percent for moving into their state of cultural and economic isolation.
What was once considered suburbanization has become balkanization.
The bonds to communicate, whether socially, civically, physically, or spiritually have been strained. It would seem a no-brainer that those who live in Murray’s Fishertown would look at those in Belmont and support the idea of increasing taxes on the wealthy, as long as it wouldn’t affect them. Such is the case of the very balkanized state of California, which voted 71 percent against Prop 38, which would increase taxes on the majority of Californians. Voters did, however, vote by a ten percent margin in favor of a tax increase on individuals making more than $250,000.
Upward mobility has always been an American ambition and a statement of pride in the American spirit. So too was America’s unbridled social capital, as Alec de Tocqueville said: “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.”
Unless the art of civics and conversations can reverse trends, weak politicians will bet their careers on the divided populace pining to eat the rich.
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