Sometimes politicians lead, sometimes the people do. When the people are out in front, the best thing “leaders” can do is get out of their way.

We may be seeing such a time on the issue of income inequality in America. Right now the focus is on raising the minimum wage on the federal, state or even local levels, but the momentum behind it goes deeper.

After decades of jobless recoveries and flat wages, it is becoming clear to more people that the system is set up to benefit a few at the expense of everyone else. Most people are working harder than they were before the recession, but for the first time in history, the increase in productivity has not resulted in higher wages.

The fix was in even before the recession. Income inequality is a well-known problem, but wealth inequality is even worse. The economist Edward N. Wolf (quoted in the book “Race Against the Machine,” by Eric Brinjolfsson and Andrew McAfee) calculates that more than 100 percent of the gain in wealth between 1983 and 2009 went to the top 20 percent of families. That was possible because the other 80 percent actually lost wealth during that period.

As wealth concentrates, so does political influence. Even though an increase in the minimum wage is always popular in polls, Congress won’t act, because too many members put the interests of large corporations ahead of their workers. Corporate profits are at a 50-year high as a portion of gross national product, and wages are at a 50-year low as a share of GNP, but most Republicans still refer to wealthy individuals as “job creators” who stimulate the economy and whose success helps everyone.

The state government is divided over the minimum wage issue and unlikely to act. A petition drive announced this week would ask Maine voters in 2016 to raise the minimum wage from $7.50 to $12 an hour. A local petition in Portland backed by the Green Independent Party would ask voters to push the minimum wage to $15 in the city.

A more modest plan to increase the minimum wage to $10.68 by 2017 is now before the city council.

The local minimum wage increase was proposed by Mayor Michael Brennan, and hasn’t had smooth sailing politically. Councilors have been slow to act, and they bring up a legitimate concern: While corporate profits soar, small businesses are still struggling and many of them would be forced to pay their workers more if the minimum wage is hiked. But the city should find a better way to help these businesses than suppressing wages.

When people can work full time and still be eligible for food stamps or Medicaid, something is seriously wrong. Low-income workers are not the only ones suffering in this economy, but their suffering is the most acute.

Like the 19th-century movement to establish the eight-hour day, the fight for a living wage is not just another bill on the political agenda.

It comes from the people, and if politicians are not ready to join it, they should be prepared to get out of the way.

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