Opinion

David Rohde

Two American families — and two Americas

David Rohde
Jul 26, 2013 04:13 UTC

Over the last 20 years, two middle class American families — the Stanleys and the Neumanns — have done all the right things. Milwaukee natives, they worked hard, learned news skills,  and tried to show their children that strivers would be rewarded.

But their lives — as captured in an extraordinary Frontline documentary — are an American calamity. Followed by filmmakers for two decades, they move from dead-end job to dead-end job, one of the couples’ divorces, and most of their children spiral downward economically, not up.

The Stanleys and the Neumanns are a microcosm of the middle class that President Barack Obama — and House Republicans — will spar over for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. And they are part of a global trend. Across industrialized nations, income inequality is growing and people like the Stanleys and Neumanns are the losers.

“Mobility is a two-edged sword,” said Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa who has studied income inequality across countries. “And you’re looking at the other edge of the sword.”

At the very top, life is getting sweeter. As my colleague Chrystia Freeland noted last month, the global “winner-take-all economy” is intensifying.

Obama’s ‘war on inequality’

David Rohde
Feb 14, 2013 00:03 UTC

He quoted Jack Kennedy but sounded more like Lyndon Johnson.

In an audacious State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama made sweeping proposals to reduce poverty, revive the middle class and increase taxes on the “well off.” While careful to not declare it outright, an emboldened second-term president laid out an agenda that could be called a “war on inequality.”

“There are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead,” Obama declared in a blunt attack one a core conservative credo. “And that’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.”

In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson introduced the legislation that became known as the “War on Poverty.” Those laws – along with many others he shepherded – stand today as perhaps the greatest legislative achievement of any modern president. Whether or not one agrees with him, Johnson’s laws – from the Civil Rights Act, to Medicaid, Medicare and Head Start, to sweeping federal urban renewal and education programs – changed the face of American society.

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