Americans are in deep denial about our wealth inequality. In the US, the richest fifth have 84 percent of the wealth – and most of us don’t consider this to be a problem. In fact, we don’t even guess at the distribution close to correctly. In a recent poll by Duke’s Dan Ariely and Harvard’s Michael Norton, respondents thought that lucky fifth has more like 59 percent of all US wealth and favor them owning just 32 percent of it.
But our blindness to the amount of inequality and its effects on our society isn’t pure ignorance or apathy. It’s at least partly a function of how we talk about the issue. We say things like “the wealth gap” and “bridge the gulf” – phrases that obscure some basic truths about inequality.
It’s automatic and necessary to explain the world in metaphors – to describe abstractions by comparing them to concrete things. In the case of inequality, we’re characterizing the differences between the rich and the poor as though they’re objects affixed on opposite sides of a chasm. But viewing inequality as an economic canyon makes it hard to argue for policies that might actually diminish it. A canyon, after all, is a natural formation.
“Gap” isn’t a stirring call to action; it’s a clothing store. It may provide a ready image of where we are, but it says nothing about how we got here. Studies of cognition and decades of experience tell us that when we don’t provide an explanation, our audiences will fill one in themselves.
Poor is "bad," wealthy is "good"
In this case, the cause-effect narrative for our “gap” seems to go like this: Those who are poor have chosen this condition. Whether it’s character flaw (lazy bum), moral failure (welfare queen), inherent defect (the bell curve), or all of the above, this story tells us what have-nots have not is ambition or intelligence.
It’s no accident that we routinely refer to the wealthiest as the “top” and the rest as the “bottom.” In English, good is up and bad is down. That’s why we say, “things are looking up” and “she’s down in the dumps.” No wonder we pull ourselves up (not forward or along) by our bootstraps. Calling certain folks upper class implies they are worth more not just materially but also morally.
Inequality isn't an individual choice
If being rich or poor is understood as the result of differential effort, then we can conclude each category is simply a lifestyle choice. Inequality is then a sign that our economy is doing exactly what it should – rewarding the deserving and motivating the lazy. And the line of reasoning continues: Since there’s nothing wrong with this, there's nothing anybody should do about it.
We use this “gap” language all the time. And then we wonder why the statistics we cite, the graphs we generate, and the examples we offer of widening inequality don’t raise the eyebrows, let alone the ire, of many in our audiences. Using this language tacitly degrades individuals and makes current conditions seem natural. By employing it, we blind the public to the fact that inequality isn't an individual choice. Rather, it’s the direct result of the rules financial and political elites have crafted for their own enrichment.
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.
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.