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Making Inequality the Center of the 2016 Debate

Last Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlaine McCray had a diverse group of 15 progressive leaders, from Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison to US Senator Sherrod Brown, over to their home for lunch. The agenda: chart a course to make inequality the defining issue of the American political debate this campaign cycle.

Honestly, such a meeting shouldn’t have been necessary. The cries of workers in the fight for $15… the millions of women demanding equity on the job… the multiracial chorus asserting that #BlackLivesMatter… the near-daily release of statistics underscoring the problem (i.e. incomes declined for all but the highest-paid last year) should be enough to make the political class take note. If our democracy were truly representative, there would be no more urgent issue for any candidate or official seeking public support this campaign cycle. Yet somehow still, most political leaders have failed to reckon with a basic fact of the new economic era: for the majority of Americans, no amount of individual effort or self-improvement or thrift can guarantee a secure middle-class life. The American social contract—a promise of opportunity and security for those willing to work hard—is fundamentally broken. And our broken democracy is to blame.

A host of undemocratic public policy choices have driven economic inequality, including tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthy, divestment from public goods including higher education, deregulation of Wall Street, and the weakening of labor protections, to name only a few. It’s astonishing to note that at a time when bipartisan majorities of Americans recognize that mobility is stalled, conservative presidential candidates and governors are presenting these trickle-down ideas as if they were solutions to the problem they in fact created. On the other hand, the progressives gathered at the Mayor’s residence last Thursday agreed that too few leaders across the aisle were offering much better. Put simply, neither tax cuts from the Right nor tax credits from the Center are going to reignite the great engine of prosperity in America.

Nor will the robust job growth under President Obama on its own reverse inequality; the shift to a low-pay service economy has in fact accelerated during the economic recovery. Over the next two decades, the Department of Labor projects that the largest job growth will be in low-paid jobs offering little opportunity for advancement, few benefits, no ability to bargain collectively, and not enough pay to allow workers to build wealth. Meanwhile, most of the better jobs that are created will require a post-secondary education that is likely to remain out of reach for millions, as states continue to shift the cost of higher education onto students and families.

In short, dramatic new public policy initiatives are needed to address what has become an existential threat to the American Dream. Such initiatives must move far beyond incremental measures, and be of sufficient scale to permanently address the economic situation of what is now a vast number of U.S. households.

Thankfully, progressives have done this before. In the 20th century, America placed a bet on the children of immigrants and descendants of slaves, and those public investments spurred on an economic force that changed the world. Today’s progressives believe that we can do it again, but even better this time, marshaling more of the dynamism of our global economy and including more of the potential of our diverse population. There is simply no excuse for our political class to ignore the magnitude of this task any longer.

During the upcoming campaign cycle, Demos will promote detailed policy proposals to combat inequality in our economy and in our democracy, including new areas such as universal childcare and automatic voter registration. We will evaluate candidates’ proposals to determine whether they would widen or narrow the racial wealth gap; rebuild pathways to the middle class or erode them; amplify the voice of the people or further distort our democracy.

Those of us whom Mayor de Blasio assembled last Thursday represent a fraction of the leaders who will drive an equity agenda forward. As always, we will do this work in partnership with leaders and organizations dedicated to building power in communities nationwide. Expect to hear more about the ideas we discussed at the Mayor’s residence in the coming months.