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January 10, 2014
Viewpoints: Stemming income inequality hinges on investing in California's middle class

Marco_Rubio.jpg(Jan. 10 - By By Art Pulaski and Jessica Bartholow, Special to The Bee)

Politics really is a Twilight Zone. For proof, look no further than the right-wing reaction to the growing problem of income inequality. For years, the conservative response to the income gap could be summed up in two words: "So what?" That's the price of a free-market economy, they'd say.

But now, few can deny the fact that the American dream is eroding before our eyes. The gap between the wealthy and everyone else is wider than at any time since the Great Depression. In 2012, the top 10percent of earners took home more than half the nation's income. That's not just obscene, it's dangerous. California is home not only to the most ultrawealthy, but also to the most poor Americans. More than 60 percent of poor Californians live in a working family, while many more wish they were working in an economy that is still riddled with the long-term unemployment legacy of the Wall Street-induced recession.

A December Washington Post/ABC news poll found that a large majority of Americans believe the government must pursue policies that reduce the income gap.

So now Republicans like presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have crossed over and are traveling through another dimension to rewrite their talking points. Finally acknowledging that inequality and poverty are problems, they contend that the solution is to slash taxes on the wealthy and gut long-standing worker protections, social safety net programs and environmental and consumer safeguards that have kept millions of Americans out of poverty. That's not only wrong; it's insulting. Remember, it was lack of regulation of the banking industry that allowed the greed of subprime lenders to crater the economy in the first place, without consequences to the ultrawealthy who caused the crash.

The truth is, the income gap is a result of an economy that favors the wealthiest few at the expense of the rest of us. Giving the rich more tax breaks and carte blanche to pollute our environment and endanger the health and safety of working people won't do a thing to address income inequality. In fact, it would make it worse.

In California, we took several steps in the right direction last year by putting an end to devastating budget cuts, expanding paid family leave, tightening the reins on out-of-control corporate tax breaks, funding new job opportunities for welfare recipients and raising the minimum wage. The rest of the country should follow our state's lead by abandoning the austerity measures known to slow economic growth and, instead, start investing in the middle-class families that power our economy.

But we cannot stop there. A strengthened economy loses its potency if wage inequality continues to grow, median wages remain stagnant and our tax code unfairly prioritizes the rich and out-of-state corporations.

It's time our economy benefits those who work hard and play by the rules instead of showering special favors upon the same corporate interests that lobbied hard to rewrite the rules and undermine the American dream.

Big corporations and their wealthy CEOs, which arguably benefit the most from public services like our university system and transportation infrastructure, must pay their fair share like the rest of us. That's why we need more fairness and transparency in our tax code. When some of the richest corporations in the country have an effective tax rate of zero, that's a sign that our economy has gone awry.

We must also do more to improve pathways to work for out-of-work veterans and families with children, and protect our working poor, out-of-work, disabled and elderly neighbors from the long-lasting and costly impacts of poverty.

When unions were at their strongest, the middle class thrived. That's no coincidence. More workers must have the ability to stand together to bargain with their bosses for decent wages, paid sick days and fair benefits.

Our schools, colleges and universities deserve the funding that gives all children a shot at the American dream.

Upgrading our crumbling infrastructure not only would put California on solid footing for the future, it would be a wise investment to create thousands of jobs now.

Investing in California allows our great state to build toward a day in which all of us play a part and none of us are left behind.

So while Rubio and company are off exploring a dimension of their imagination in which making things worse would make things better, the rest of us are rolling up our sleeves. The next stop isn't the Twilight Zone, it is reality, and it is time to start making it better for America's families.

Art Pulaski is executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. Jessica Bartholow is a legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.