In tomorrow’s State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to speak at length about growing income inequality in the United States, and his plans to address it. Any plan to address income inequality must also address the political inequality created by unrestrained spending on elections.
Income inequality affects not just individual lives, but our political system as a whole. In a series of cases beginning with the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court has struck down commonsense campaign finance regulations designed to limit private economic power from dominating campaigns for political office – and thus dominating our country’s political process. Since that time, the income share of the top one percent of income earners has almost tripled, growing at a substantially higher rate than the income of the rest of the population.
This mounting wealth disparity has not resulted simply from the good fortune of the hardest working or smartest among us; it has been assisted through government policy. The capital gains tax sits at 23.8% for top earners despite the vast majority of Americans believing that it should be equal to the rate at which income is taxed. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage, whose real value has fallen about 30% since 1968, remains stagnant at $7.25 per hour, despite the fact that 71 percent of Americans want to see it increased; however, only 40 percent of the wealthiest Americans support such an increase.
As income inequality has ballooned, it has also become more difficult for even the most hard-working Americans to improve their economic prospects. State university systems that were once free are now approaching the cost of private institutions, while scholarships are going less often to benefit low-income students. Labor unions, which were instrumental in building the American middle class, are facing attacks from legislators backed by well-funded corporate interests.
Income inequality and political inequality go hand-in-hand. As This American Life has noted, the average member of Congress spends at least four hours a day calling wealthy individuals and organizations asking for money, a tally that does not even include the countless fundraisers they must attend. Average Americans don’t get these calls. They do not get the chance to meet with their representatives at intimate gatherings. Their voices go unheard.
The sad truth is that under our current system, time-intensive fundraising and the concessions that go along with it are necessary conditions for the ascension to political office in the United States. That is something we need to change if we are ever going to deal with income inequality or any of the other major problem facing our country.
That is why we here at People for the American Way Foundation are calling for “Money Out, Voters In” campaign and are working to pass a constitutional amendment that will allow our elected officials to work for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.