“It’s the economy, stupid.” So advised presidential campaign strategist James Carville in 1992.

While traditional wisdom says political careers rise and fall with the economy, what exactly is “the economy”? Is it the gross national product, or the stock market, or the payrolls, or the unemployment rate, or the cost of living, or the size of the national debt, or the spending of the people, or the saving of the people, or …?  How well the economy is doing depends, in part, on the conditions in the country as a whole. Yet an individual’s view is more largely colored by whether one has, whether one has little, or whether one has lots.

The Haves: This group is most susceptible to fluctuations in the economy. In good times, they can live comfortably, meet expenses, save and invest. In bad times, however, it can be difficult to make mortgage payments, pay credit card debts, cover tuition, etc. They are at the whim of the winds of the economy.  They are, however, generally secure.

• The Have-Nots: Those in poverty and those trying to make ends meet will never feel that the economy is going well, for theirs is a battle to get adequate food, clothing and shelter. Having to constantly struggle to have basic needs met leaves Have-Nots in a seemingly permanently tragic state. They are always insecure.

• The Have-Lots: In good times and in bad, the rich will remain rich. When economic indicators weaken, the wealthy are still able to weather any downturns.  They may lament the lessening of their fortunes, but they are not in perpetual suffering like the have-nots, and their lives are not buffeted like the lives of haves are. They are always super-secure. 

The differences between the lifestyles and lives of these three groups are striking. This is especially true regarding the three basic needs: food (from dumpster diving to eating in posh restaurants), clothing (from donated items to designer labels), and shelter (from homelessness to mansions and penthouses). The gaps are also huge with regard to access to health care, opportunities for education and paths to employment – not to mention avenues to wealth.

The current pandemic further accentuates the differences: Many Haves have lost jobs and small businesses, and even more Have-Nots are in need of food, yet most Have-Lots are rejoicing at the repeated stock market records.

Many programs can chip away at the extreme inequalities. Some programs are stopgap attempts to combat poverty (food pantries, shelters, workfare and welfare). Some are transitional (higher minimum pay or more-progressive taxes – such as higher maximum income tax rates, luxury taxes, wealth taxes and taxes on financial transactions). Some are systemic (better education, Head Start and affirmative action). Some are transformative (limits on the CEO-to-median-worker-pay ratios).

The goal need not be ending inequality. It is neither reasonable nor even desirable for all to be equal. Fair would be good enough. While we can work to lessen inequality, it is more important to lessen inequity. Our country suffers too much from systemic discrimination stemming from capitalism and racism. We need to move a bit closer to equal and a lot closer to fair.

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