“What the Dickens is Going On?” by John Edward

John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Charles Dickens

Quoting the opening words from A Tale of Two Cities might seem obvious or even trite. If so, it is only because these words, and much of Dickens’ work, are so apt for our times.

The gap between the rich and everyone else has reached historic levels. Government agencies, academia and research groups are documenting what is going on. We can quantify the problem.

What we need is for someone to explain what is going on – to put it in human terms, to be read by the masses. We need another Charles Dickens.

UMass Lowell English Professor Diana Archibald aptly describes what made Dickens’ observations so powerful: “Most people look right through or past the evidence of social injustice. I remember an elderly woman once telling me, ‘I’m invisible. Nobody ever talks to me. Nobody even looks at me.’ But, you see, Dickens did look at people like her.” Professor Archibald is one of the organizers of a series of events celebrating Dickens in Lowell.

Dickens’ fiction did more to expose the ugliness of inequality in 19th century England than any journalist or economist. He vividly portrayed the divide between rich and poor as personified by characters like Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit.

The divide between rich and poor has grown ugly in 21st century United States. In the 1970s, the top 1 percent of income earners received less than 10 percent of total income. Now they are getting almost 25 percent.

The top 1 percent has incomes greater than $350,000. Half of them have income over $550,000. Their average income is about a million dollars. For the poor, the average income is around $11,000.

These numbers reveal extremes of inequality that we have not seen since just before the Great Depression. What the numbers cannot reveal is what it is like to live in abject poverty in a country where the super-wealthy flaunt their affluence.

Make no mistake; government policy is making inequality worse. Last month I talked about the capital gains tax. Tax Policy Center analysis of tax returns found that 75 percent of the benefit of lower taxes on capital gains goes to the top 1 percent. Economics Professor William Lazonick of UMass Lowell has written extensively on how public policy has contributed to excessive executive compensation in corporate America.

It will not be easy politically, but we can fix government policy. The larger challenge may be to change how accepting society has become of excess and greed.

The Occupy movement put inequality under a spotlight for a while. However, it is not clear whether the lasting impression will be the gap between the top 1 percent and The 99 Percent, or rather the assessment of one Presidential candidate that protestors should “stop whining, take a bath and get a job.”

In a Gallup poll conducted in January, only 2 percent said the issue that worried them most was the “Divide between rich and poor.” A UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion poll on the Massachusetts Senate race asked people “what one issue would you like to hear about?” They did not even list inequality as one of the fourteen choices.

Instead of emerging as a high profile issue, inequality is a submerging problem. Politicians are always talking about how much they will do for the middle class. A cynic would say it is because that is where the votes are.

Warning – the middle class is shrinking! One definition of the middle class is households with incomes within 50 percent of the median. The median income for households is about $50 thousand. So the middle class is households making more than $25 and less than $75 thousand.

In 1970, 50 percent of households were in the middle class. Now it is only 42 percent.

Another piece of the problem is the Myth Of Mobility in the U.S. As reported recently in The Boston Globe, the distinguishing feature of our economy is “income heritability.” Mobility in America is much less prevalent than people think, and much less than many other countries.

The economy is at or near the top of every poll of issues voters care about. Whose economy? A recent Congressional Budget Office report showed that after accounting for taxes and inflation, incomes of the top 1 percent increased by 275 percent over the past thirty years. Their economy is doing fine.

Meanwhile, the Annie E. Casey Foundation finds that one out of nine children in the U.S. live in communities where more than 30 percent of families are living in poverty. In Massachusetts, the number of children living in concentrated poverty increased by 28 percent in the last decade. Is that the economy voters are concerned about?

More to the point, what is this economy like – what are the living conditions? We need another Dickens to describe it and show why we should care.

. . . he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’
Oliver Twist

Professor Archibald describes “Dickens’s choice to do what he could to draw attention to injustice, to hunt out the hypocrites and expose them to public ridicule through his art.” We need another Charles Dickens to draw attention to what is going on now.

The University of Massachusetts Lowell is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Dickens birth and his visit to the United States, including Lowell, which he chronicled in American Notes. For more information, visit the Dickens in Lowell web site.

In American Notes, Dickens explicitly avoided comparing working conditions in Lowell with those back home in England. He did cite what he found in Lowell to criticize English attitudes toward class rank.

Perhaps the celebration of Charles Dickens in Lowell will inspire someone to expose the conditions created by the class warfare that has been waged during the last three decades.