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A steeper ladder for the have-nots

IT IS STUNNING to see the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times simultaneously devote a series to the American class divide. The Journal reported last Friday, ''Despite the widespread belief that the US remains a more mobile society than Europe, economists and sociologists say that in recent decades the typical child starting out in poverty in continental Europe or in Canada has had a better chance at prosperity."

In an echo, the Times wrote vitually the same thing, adding that in America, a child's economic background is a better predictor of school performance than in Denmark, the Netherlands, or France. The best that could be said was that class mobility in the United States is ''not as low as in developing countries like Brazil, where escape from poverty is so difficult that the lower class is all but frozen in place."

Oh joy. This is what we have come to? Comparisons to developing countries?

Another odd thing about the series is that the mainstays of the mainstream press are making a big deal out of the divide after years in which many economists warned that our policies were plunging us straight toward Brazil. For years, groups like the Boston-based United for a Fair Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies sent up smoke signals that should have been a smoking gun.

In 1973, the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 43 to 1. By 1992, it was 145 to 1. By 1997, it was 326 to 1. By 2000, it hit a sky-high 531 to 1. The post 9/11 shakeouts and corporate scandals of recent years on the surface narrowed the gap back to 301 to 1 in 2003. But a much worse parallel global gap is emerging in the era of outsourcing. United for a Fair Economy published a report last summer that found CEOs of the top US outsourcing companies made 1,300 times more than their computer programmers in India and 3,300 more than Indian call-center employees.

Such groups say if the minimum wage kept up with the rise in CEO pay, it would be $15.76 an hour instead of its current $5.15. Looking at it another way, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, another often written-off liberal think tank, published a report last month that in the last three years, the share of US national income that goes toward corporate profits is at its highest levels since World War II, while the share of national income that goes to wages and salaries is at a record low.

This completes a perfect storm over the last quarter century of corporate welfare for those with the most among us and vilification for those with the least. Americans have been seduced by simplistic notions of rugged individualism to vote more to punish people (welfare mothers, prison booms, and affirmative action in the 1990s, and gay marriage in 2004) than for programs and policies that might lead to healing the gaps (national healthcare and revamped public schools).

It is obvious that Americans believed that none of the inequalities long endured by the poor (because it's all their fault, right?) would seep into our lives. We were wrong. With suburban schools slashing their budgets, healthcare costs rising, retirement funds in doubt, and the next generation facing a drop in their life span from obesity and diabetes, the nation is sliding into a dangerous place.

A quarter century of a ''mine, all mine" ethos continues to work for CEOs and the upper class. The rest of America finds the ladder taller and steepening. Much of the nation is now one catastrophic injury away from falling into poverty. It should be a national emergency that stratification in the richest nation in the world has us fading from the relative mobility of Europe and sinking toward the discouragement in developing countries.

It is no wonder why politicians who protect the wealthy scream ''class warfare" every time someone talks about inequity. It is a diversion to keep those who vote against their own interests from realizing they are victims of friendly fire.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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