Do you think the poor are lazy?
Even if you said 'No,' the way we talk about wealth assigns moral superiority to the rich. Terms like 'the wealth gap' obscure basic truths about inequality, casting it as a natural economic function. Inequality is really a barrier made to keep others out. We can dismantle it, starting with our words.
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In one economy, inequality hurts all
A wealth divide further implies we have two separate economies, with the rich on one side of the gap and everyone else on the other. If we believe the wealth of a few has absolutely no relationship to the deprivation of others, then there is no solution for inequality. Because there’s no problem.Skip to next paragraph
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This is not just a false assumption but also a dangerous one. All of us engage with one another, producing, consuming, saving, and investing in our one economy. But the wealthy have managed to make off with the lion’s share. When wealth connotes moral goodness, it’s easy to believe that these riches are just deserts. As Dan Quayle argued against progressive taxation, “Why should the best people be punished?” Yet history shows that some people are unfathomably rich because others are inexcusably poor.
So how do we get the word out about economic inequality? Not just how much of it exists, but also where it comes from, and why it’s destroying the long-term stability of American society and the proper functioning of our economy?
Make no mistake: Impoverishing certain populations is, in fact, derailing our entire economy. As we suppress real wages for the majority, we shrink purchasing power and with it consumption and then available employment. Without money to maintain our homes and care for our families, we have less and less reason to follow the tacit agreements of civil society.
Not a 'gap,' but a 'barrier'
Instead of a “gap between rich and poor,” we’re far better served calling it a “barrier.” A barrier connotes a big, imposing wall behind which a few can hoard the goodies, while those on the other side are left wanting. When you barricade yourself in, you keep others out. Instead of asking to “bridge the divide,” let’s insist on dismantling the obstacles that keep too many from the gains produced of their own hard work.
The metaphor of inequality as a barrier, wall, or other obstruction highlights several critical truths about our economy. It tells us these objects are man-made. This conveys that inequality is not some God-given, inevitable, natural wonder. We have built these barriers, and we can bring them down. In other words, there’s another way our economy can be structured if we elect and work for it.
We can start by deconstructing the foundations of these barriers – spotty prenatal care, no universal preschool, lead-painted walls, and cheap, accessible junk food. We can continue by combating overcrowded classrooms managed by a revolving cast of untrained teachers. We can improve the recreational and after-school choices for children. And we can work to eliminate the neighborhood violence, dirty air, and contaminated water that form the perfect blockade to adult success.
Crafting our inequality narrative from this metaphor, we would use phrases like this: Inequality holds people back from contributing to our nation. It sets in place obstacles not only to success, but survival. Trapping some Americans in poverty, policies that promote inequality exclude certain groups from making a living, no matter how much they work. The rules we’ve crafted block access to resources and opportunities, and prevent huge numbers of us from participating meaningfully in our economy.
Let’s have our language lay the blame where it belongs – on the obstructions erected by decades of greed and concentrated wealth and power, not on the people who find themselves trapped on the wrong side of them. This is America. Don’t fence me in.
Anat Shenker-Osorio, founder and principal of ASO Communications, is a communications consultant.