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Opinion

The American dream needs saving

The middle class must defend itself against rising income inequality

On Tuesday, a study from the Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg confirmed what many middle-class Americans sensed uneasily for years: The American dream is dead. America’s middle class is no longer the richest; in fact, that designation can now be given to Canada. We are at crossroads. We can either passively accept this new notion of the “Canadian dream” or pressure our leaders to wake our nation up from the nightmare of rising income inequality.

The study cites several causes for this startling income gap. The first is a lack of educational attainment among 16- to 24-year-olds relative to the same population in other countries. The second is a stagnation in wages. Although our economy continues to experience positive growth, wages are not increasing accordingly. Third, in comparison to that of other countries, our tax system does not properly redistribute wealth, as the structure benefits the rich and hurts the middle class.

If 90 percent of us are suffering under the current status quo, which clearly benefits the rich and powerful, it shouldn’t be so difficult to voice our concerns and address these three causes through reform. This should be an issue that unites us across other political cleavages, such as social issues or even foreign policy concerns.

Unfortunately, the political system is no longer responsive to the will of the middle class. Another disturbing study recently confirmed that the political structure of the United States looks less like a democracy, and more like an oligarchy. Decision-making appears most responsive to the interests of the top income earners.

What the study does not explain is why middle-class Americans are left out of the decision-making process. As columnist Dorothy Manevich explained on Tuesday, loose campaign finance laws allow powerful interest groups and corporations to influence politics at a disproportionate rate. Though this trend has given such groups disproportionate influence, it cannot fully explain why politicians do not acknowledge the will of their constituents.

Despite the fact that money is concentrated in a small group, the ailing middle class still makes up 90 percent of the population. Politicians are primarily motivated by reelection. If we were to mobilize and rally around these three causes, politicians would be forced to acknowledge us. There is strength in Big Money, but also strength in numbers. However, it remains to be seen if we are even capable of mobilization or willing to voice our concerns.

In comparison to Western European countries, we have a low rate of protest and strike. Only 7.2 percent of American workers are unionized. The response to the Occupy Wall Street movement illustrates the way American society tends to demonize those advocating redistribution of wealth. Due to the value we place in hard work, such protesters are told to “get a job” and “stop complaining.” Even those who secretly agree with protesters remain silent, for fear that stepping out of line will result in unemployment in an unforgiving economic climate.

It’s time to accept reality. This is no longer a country where one can work hard, receive a good education and expect a steady income and benefits. This is not meritocracy. It is no longer enough to work hard, because the system doesn’t reward hard workers; it rewards those with wealth. The first step in resurrecting the American dream is recognizing its death. The second step is not to mourn its loss, but to hold the politicians and corporations who killed it responsible for their criminal actions.

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.