SCOTT BURNSIt’s time for us to find our hearts
It seems timely.
In fact, journalist Vance Packard’s book was published in 1989. In the 31 years since, the question has only gathered relevance and momentum. Wealth in America has become ever more concentrated. And the gap between wealthy and ordinary people has become unfathomable.
At the end of 1989, according to Federal Reserve data, the top 1% held 23.28% of all wealth. The bottom 50% held 3.65%.
Thirty years later, at the end of the first quarter of 2019, the top 1% held 31.24% of all wealth. The bottom 50% held only 1.33%. The rich got much richer.
Others, not so much.
Indeed, the top 1% had more wealth than the bottom 90%. And that was nearly two years ago, before the arrival of COVID-19 brought a soaring stock market for the wealthy and mass unemployment for millions of lower-wage service workers.
This is more than a money statistic.
The change has been accompanied by a loss of hope for millions of Americans and a profound level of social disintegration for people at the bottom of the pyramid. This is far beyond the politics of left and right. It is central. Indeed, two of the best observers of the change are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, published in 2013, is a statistical tour de force showing the decline in income, job security, marriage, married childbirth and homeownership for less educated white people over that 50-year period. He also details the rising income, job security, marital strength and wealth of more educated white Americans. Murray, a libertarian, is routinely vilified by the left.
But New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn documented exactly the same thing in Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, which was published earlier this year. While Murray’s book is pure, cold-blooded statistics, Kristof and WuDunn’s book blends statistics and policy talk with heart-rending stories about poor Americans caught in a cycle of poverty, joblessness, drugs, alcohol and crime.
Read either book, and you’ll be scared for the future of our country. There’s also a good chance you’ll learn that we may be the wealthiest country in the world and in history, but we’re increasingly inferior to literally dozens of nations in things that matter far more than wealth.
The message I get from these books is that we need to care enough about others in our society to pay all workers a decent wage. We need to truly honor all work. Really, the start for change is that simple.
Today we do neither. Only a college education brings valued work. Other workers are treated as disposable — not worthy of benefits, health insurance or a reliable schedule of hours. They are treated as “losers.”
Change that — make work proud again — and our society will start to heal, our families will be stronger and more stable, more children will be raised by two parents instead of one, and more families will find a foothold on the ladder of wealth.
The greatest barrier to getting this done is far deeper than our wretched, ossified politics.
The barrier is a widespread stunting of heart and spirit among the fortunate. We need to turn away from pointing fingers and blaming. We need to find a way to help millions of people detox off the drug of anger. All of us need to care for people after they have been born as well as before.
The most transformative book that I’ve read on this subject isn’t about economics or public policy. It’s short. It’s an easy read, too. That can’t be said for philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s work on the subject.
If you’ve forgotten what Christmas is about, reading it will be a deep reminder.
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller (Riverhead Books, 2008, 152 pages). While Keller intended the book for a Christian audience, I believe it speaks to everyone. He examines the story of the prodigal son.
Rather than focus on the younger son, the prodigal son, Keller turns the story around. He examines the attitude of the older son, the one who did everything right and followed all the rules — but feels pushed aside. He is angered by his father’s instant acceptance of the prodigal’s return.
Our Creator’s feast is all around us. Too many of us tear up the invitation.
Have a wonderful, generous, forgiving Christmas.
Scott Burns is the creator of Couch Potato investing and a longtime personal finance columnist for The Dallas Morning News.