Holding one's breath while waiting for presidential candidates to address the gap between rich and poor is a sure way to asphyxiate.
Barack Obama and John McCain had a fine opportunity to discuss the issue last weekend, when Rick Warren, the latest heir to Billy Graham's chair as unofficial national pastor, held a one-man inquisition of the two presumptive nominees.
To his credit, Warren asked a very important question: “What would be the greatest moral failure of America?”
Obama answered, “We still don't abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me .… That basic principle applies to poverty. It applies to racism and sexism. It applies to, you know, not having, not thinking about providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class. There's a pervasive sense, I think, that this country, as wealthy and powerful as we are, still don't spend enough time thinking about the least of us.”
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McCain answered, “Perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest .… I think after 9-11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers, expand what you're doing.”
Income gap is growing
Those are not the worst answers in the world, but are far from the best. For years now, every indicator has pointed to a gap that requires the urgency of a Marshall Plan or an Apollo program – or at least the attention we give Michael Phelps' eight gold medals.
Locally, a University of Massachusetts study recently found that since 1989, the median income for the richest 20 percent of Massachusetts residents went up 11 percent, while staying flat in the middle and falling for the bottom 20 percent.
That finding mirrors a spring report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The think tank on fiscal policy for low- and middle-income Americans reported that nationally, the incomes of the top fifth of Americans went up 9.1 percent over the last decade, while incomes among the bottom fifth fell by 2.5 percent.
But closing the gap is difficult for Obama or McCain to claim as a top priority, because it means directly challenging the top 20 percent to give back to their country.
It is clear that Obama knows intellectually that the gap is growing. He said this month in a speech in St. Petersburg, Fla., that “people are starting to lose faith in the American dream.” He offers all kinds of thoughtful plans on his Website to give tax relief to the middle class, job programs to the poor and billions of dollars of various state and federal stimulus packages.
But at the Warren forum, Obama also said, “Under the approach I'm taking, if you make $150,000 or less, you will see a tax cut. If you're making $250,000 or more, you're going to see a modest increase. What I am trying to do is create a sense of balance.”
It is hard to see how Obama will restore balance with such modest expectations.
McCain treats the struggles of families more as a blip that would be rectified if he merely delivers relief on gas and food prices and slashes the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. Never mind that the Government Accountability Office reported last week that two-thirds of corporations operating in the United States paid no federal income taxes from 1998 to 2005.
A political third rail
Americans say in surveys that they care about the income and wealth gaps. What they need is a politician who cares. Right now, Obama and McCain treat the gap as a third rail, as if to talk about it invites candidacy-killing charges of socialism. Yet the candidate who touches the rail first just might find it delivers the jolt he needs to get to the White House.