Alberto Ruggieri/Getty Images/Illustration Works
When it was hot, the bill my mother wouldn't pay was the gas one. This meant peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and, also, dinner peanut butter sandwiches, or fruit or anything else good that didn't have to be cooked or refrigerated.
In the colder months, her neglected bill of choice was the electric, which meant reverting to an agrarian sleeping schedule, up at dawn, down at sunset and candlelight, despite the fact that the larger city of Philadelphia glowed alive outside our window.
In the apartments where we had electric heat, we warmed ourselves by turning the oven up high and leaving its door hanging open, my mom's fingers held wide to catch its heat like it was a campfire.
Mat Johnson's books include Loving Day,Pymand the graphic novel Incognegro. Meera Bowman Johnson hide caption
Mat Johnson's books include Loving Day,Pymand the graphic novel Incognegro.Meera Bowman Johnson
The phone being turned off was my favorite, because it just meant more conversation, and walks to the pay phone two blocks away for essentials. These periods would last weeks, or hours, whatever it took to get to her next payday.
My mom couldn't pay the bills on time during this period because she was generally broke: a full-time college student also working a full-time clerical job all while being a full-time mother as well. Without sufficient funds some months, she had to choose: Which bill could get paid? Which bill could get paid late? Which bill couldn't get paid that month at all?
But eventually, whatever was turned off would be turned on again — after paying the original balance ... plus, the late fee ... plus, the reconnection fee ... plus, sometimes having to lose a day of work and pay to stay home for the technician to eventually show up and bring us back into the modern age.
On top of the existing cost of her keeping her house a home, which she already could barely afford, my mom paid the poverty tax. And that informal poverty tax wasn't just on utilities. It was there in her bank account, where $45 overdraft charges could accumulate into hundreds in a day. It was there in the high interest rate when she bought a car, and finally bought a home — rates that may have also been higher because her blackness was factored into her loan.
She wasn't just struggling with poverty; she was also struggling with effectively being fined for being poor, in what together became a societal mechanism to keep her poor as well.
The three words "vanishing middle class" are a popular way of describing America's increasing income inequality — our slow but steady move to a polar society of haves and have-nots. But in my head, it's a sterile, nebulous phrase, evoking the image of an idealized 1950s family slowly fading into gray. At best, it hints at the long-term elements: stagnated wages, a statistical trend toward a lack of upward economic mobility and a generation shift downward.
It's evidenced in omnipresent and omnivorous check-cashing storefronts that offer broke people the opportunity to further break themselves at usury rates, appliance rental companies that cause customers to pay more over time for essentials than they ever would have if they could manage good credit, and an arcane credit-rating system that lowers scores drastically just for having small balance allotments or minor payment latenesses years before.
I managed to get to the middle class and grab enough of a foothold to stay in it — knock on a forest of wood. I teach at a large university in Houston, and I'm fortunate to be one of the salaried professors here, as opposed to the freelance adjunct professors on campus, some of whom teach more classes than I do — and get paid far less — with none of my job's benefits. I drive home to my middle-class suburb through the poverty of the Third Ward, past people who are paying far more for many of the expenses of living, even though I make far more.
It would be nice to sit in my car and think that the difference between my lifestyle and theirs was just down to hard work, but I'm under no such delusion. I'm where I am in part because of my mother's sacrifice, in part because I also had a white middle-class father a few miles away who was active in my life and invested in my education. I worked hard, sure, but nobody works harder to survive than poor people. I just got some good breaks and so did many of my ancestors.
The "vanishing middle class" sounds cold, moderate, gradual. But it's not. For far too many, this economic reality is hot, violent and now.
A wealthy friend told me recently that this was an "anti-rich moment" in America. But I see Donald Trump on TV constantly bragging about the billions he says he has, and his crowd is cheering. I think most Americans love the rich — as long as they can convince themselves it's possible to join their ranks.
But it's becoming increasingly obvious to even casual observers that there is no real right-angle-triangle graph between our economic classes, with a slow and steady gradient to the top. We are separated by cliffs that are incredibly easy to fall off, but which have few handholds to climb. The "vanishing middle class" sounds cold, moderate, gradual. But it's not. For far too many, this economic reality is hot, violent and now.
Illustration by Alberto Ruggieri via Getty Images.
Paul Solman has been covering economic inequality for nearly 25 years as part of his business and economics reporting for the PBS NewsHour. His recent series has looked at the shrinking middle class, the impact of social safety-net programs and how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world, among other topics. Here is a rundown of our series to date:
Do You Live in a Bubble? A Quiz
The new upper class, according to author Charles Murray, lives in a social and cultural bubble. And so he includes this 25-question quiz, covering beer to politics to Avon to “The Big Bang Theory,” to help readers determine how thick their own bubble may be. You can take it here.
Online March 14, 2011
Author Charles Murray: Elites Should Teach Working Class How to Live
The super-educated upper class is out of touch but it could teach lower classes better ways to live, according to conservative lightning rod Charles Murray. As part of his series on Making Sen$e of financial news, Paul Solman speaks with Murray about his new book, “Coming Apart,” which examines America’s “class society.”
Aired March 20, 2012
Taxes: How High Is Too High?
Economics correspondent Paul Solman explores the question of just how high U.S. tax rates should or shouldn’t be and examines the relationship between economic activity and tax rates. It’s part of his ongoing reporting series, Making Sen$e of financial news.
Aired Jan. 11, 2012
Rich Shopper, Poor Shopper
As part of his series on Making Sen$e of financial news, business and economics correspondent Paul Solman explores how retailers are faring in an economy that’s increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots.
Aired Dec. 22, 2011
Bargain Basement and Top Shelf: What’s Driving Growth for Retailers?
An “hourglass” economy: where sales at the very high and low ends of the price spectrum are huge, and those in the middle, not so much. So, what types of items are pushing sales in the hourglass? And what can you expect to pay for them? We’ve compiled the answers in a slideshow.
Online Dec. 23, 2011
‘The Buyout of America’ Author on Occupy Wall Street Protests
On a reportorial visit to Zuccotti Park, we ran into Journalist Josh Kosman, who’d written a book, “The Buyout of America.” We asked him about the Occupy Wall Street movement, how it related to his concerns, and why he has so far been dead wrong in predicting a private equity crash.
Online Nov. 7, 2011
Does U.S. Economic Inequality Have a Good Side?
A new Congressional Budget Office analysis supports the idea that income inequality has grown considerably over the past few decades. Is there a potential up-side to this? Paul talks to libertarian law professor Richard Epstein, who argues that wealth inequality acts as a driving force for innovation.
Aired Oct. 26, 2011
The Inequality Dilemma
“It’s a welcome moment when we TV reporters get mail, since we usually talk to an invisible audience. I’m especially glad to respond to this latest landslide, hostile though most of it has been, since the issue is one to which I attach the greatest importance, especially as our economy tries to slog ahead: inequality in America.”
Online Oct. 31, 2011
A Recap of Paul Solman’s Inequality Chat
Paul took to the social media sphere for an hour-long live Q&A session on economic inequality. You can see it all here, along with some additional information and reporting.
Online Nov. 1, 2011
‘Occupy Wall Street’ Protests Give Voice to Anger Over Greed, Corporate Culture
The protests against Wall Street gained new momentum when union members and students joined the demonstration and marched through the streets of lower Manhattan. Paul Solman visits the budding movement’s base camp.
Aired Oct. 5, 2011
A Day with the Occupiers of Wall Street
We spent a day at the Occupy Wall Street site in lower Manhattan, a stone’s throw from ground zero. For those of us old enough to remember such gatherings in the so-called Sixties (’64-’74), the similarities were striking: spontaneity, solidarity, earnestness, and, of course, dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Online Oct. 5, 2011
Photo Essay: The Occupiers of Wall Street
A look at who’s participating in the protests.
Online Oct. 5, 2011
Inequality Hurts: The Unhealthy Side Effects of Economic Disparity
Paul Solman investigates the health effects that inequality can have on individuals and society. To determine the hidden costs, he speaks with epidemiologists, former six-figure income earners who are chronically unemployed and poor teenagers who struggle with inequality each day.
Aired Sept. 28, 2011
World Inequality: Trot the Globe Without Leaving Your Seat
An interactive world inequality map based on data from the World Bank. We confess; this isn’t exactly “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” But this quiz will test your inequality intuition about different places around the world, and playing around with the graphic will give you a sense of how income is distributed around the globe in 2011.
Online Sept. 29, 2011
Do Social Safety Net Programs Shrink Gap in U.S. Economic Inequality?
The widening wealth gap in America was examined in a past report, but economist Bob Lerman says those data are flawed because they do not include the value of Social Security and health insurance.
Aired Sept. 21, 2011
Easy As Pie: Inequality In Downloadable Charts
You asked, we listened: below are the two sets of inequality pie charts from what turned out to be a very popular poll, available for download as PDFs. The first keeps the true counties a secret; the second is an ‘answer key’ with each country labeled.
Online Sept. 21, 2011
A Broader View of America’s Wealth Inequality
Robert Lerman’s detailed breakdown of how he would slice the pie, factoring in Social Security and Medicare benefits, along with financial and housing assets.
Online Sept. 22, 2011
Americans Facing More Inequality, More Debt and Now More Trouble?
Did America’s record-high level of economic inequality in 2007 help cause the financial crisis of 2008? With Americans’ borrowing back on the rise and signs that economic inequality is growing, could there be another financial crisis in the near future?
Aired Aug. 17, 2011
Is Economic Inequality a Big Deal?
We thought we’d stage a debate: is or isn’t economic inequality a big deal, a clear and present danger? Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute joined us to argue that inequality should not be our focus; Pomona College economist and dean Cecilia Conrad made the case that inequality is indeed in itself a major problem.
Online Aug. 19, 2011
Land of the Free, Home of the Poor
Financial gains over the last decade in the United States have been mostly made at the “tippy-top” of the economic food chain as more people fall out of the middle class. The top 20 percent of Americans now holds 84 percent of U.S. wealth.
Aired Aug. 16, 2011
Wealth: How Does the U.S. Slice the Pie?
We recreated experiments conducted by psychologists Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School, based on pie charts representing various levels of wealth distribution. Which country do you think each chart represents? The results may surprise you – they certainly surprised us.
Online Aug. 12, 2011
Sweden’s Super-Duper Rich
Turns out the world inequality skew is even more marked than we thought, or suggested on our recent story about inequality. A number of viewers have pointed out that wealth in Sweden too is more unequally distributed than we claimed in our middle pie chart.
Online Aug. 17, 2011
Many Americans Feel ‘Stuck in a Rut’ as Economy Improves, But Inequality Grows
Paul Solman examines the struggles to close the widening U.S. inequality gap, even as the economy improves.
Aired March 24, 2011
Income Inequality: Where Do You Fall?
Income inequality has changed over time: today the richest one percent of Americans hold about 24 percent of U.S. wealth. But almost a century ago in 1915, that same top percent had just 18 percent of the nation’s wealth. To see where you fall, enter your zip code and yearly income, and the widget tells you how you compare to others in your neighborhood, state and the country.
Online March 24, 2011.
In Ohio, How 2 Counties’ Economic Paths Diverged Over 30 Years
Paul Solman reports from two Ohio counties — Crawford and Delaware — that had similar incomes 30 years ago, but their economies and populations have since taken very different paths.
Aired March 15, 2011
Paul Solman and Dante Chinni on Ohio’s Economic Inequality
Paul Solman and Dante Chinni of Patchwork Nation recently traveled to two counties in Ohio – Crawford and Delaware. Thirty years ago they had similar average incomes but today, they’ve grown apart. In this web video exclusive, Paul and Dante discuss the two worlds they found and how the situation compares to the last story they did together on inequality in Los Alamos and Espanola, New Mexico.
Online March 15, 2011
Live Chat: Economic Inequality
A replay of the chat between Paul Solman, Dante Chinni of Patchwork Nation and Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, moderated by PBS NewsHour Correspondent Hari Sreenivasan. They answered your questions about income inequality in America.
Online March 16, 2011
And a sampling of how the inequality story has developed over time:
In the jobs race, are employers putting their money on “proven winners?” Business correspondent, Paul Solman, WGBH-Boston, reports on who is pulling ahead in the economy of the 1990s.
Aired Jan. 12, 1996 (transcript only).
The Bud Vase Economy
Talking with cab drivers, academics and a glass blower, Paul Solman helps to explain how America came to have an increasing income gap, and where we can expect it to go from here. Aired Oct. 21, 1996 (transcript only)
Has America entered into a second Gilded Age? Business correspondent Paul Solman reports on the increase in spending for luxury items.
Aired May 20, 1999 (transcript only)
New Mexico Offers Case Study in Economic Inequalities
New Mexico’s stark economic disparities are evident in the state’s north, from the affluent community of Los Alamos to the struggling Hispanic heartland of Espanola. Paul Solman and Dante Chinni report on the reasons behind the inequalities and the efforts to narrow the gap.
Aired Oct. 14, 2008 (download and streaming video available)
This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions