As the American middle class contracts, it is worth considering the ramifications this might have on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender equality. Generally speaking, angry people going nowhere fast are less receptive to arguments in favor of minority rights. They have their own grievances and are in no mood to hear about the plight of others. If current economic trends continue, it could lead to indifference to LGBT concerns and the proliferation of right-wing extremist groups that exploit these unfortunate trends.
Conservative policies and the gutting of unions have decreased leverage for workers and led to lower wages. Research by three economists – Paul Beaudry, David Green, and Benjamin Sand – points out the problem of wage stagnation.
“Having a B.A. is less about obtaining access to high paying managerial and technology jobs and more about beating out less-educated workers for the barista or clerical job,” states their report “The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks.”
The New York Times editorial board echoed the concern about wages:
“From 1979 to 1995, their [people with bachelor degrees] average pay rose modestly, by .46 percent on average annually, while wages declined for the non-college educated who make up the vast majority of workers. From 1995 to 2000, wages grew for all educational groups, but since 2002 pay for the less educated has declined while pay for the college educated has stagnated.”
The gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else is growing astronomically. The top 40 hedge fund managers and traders in 2012 were paid a combined $16.7 billion, which is equal to the wages of 400,000 workers. In the same year, the top 5 percent of earners gobbled up 38 percent of consumption, up from 28 percent in 1995, according to new research by economists Steven Fazzari of Washington University, and Barry Cynamon, of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Data from the World Top Incomes Database reveals that in 2012:
“The average household in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution earned about $30,997. For the average household in the top 1 percent, the figure is $1,264,065 and for the top .1 percent it is about $6,373,782.”
Put another way, our .1 percent household made about 206 times, and our 1 percent household 41 times, what our average household did.
This has led to hard times for stores and restaurants that cater to the dwindling middle class, while it has created a mini-boom for high-end outlets, or those that focus on serving formerly middle class families on limited budgets. According to an article in The New York Times, “The Middle Class Is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World”:
“The post recession reality is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls further away. … Across the country, Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants are struggling, while fine-dining chains like Capital Grille are thriving. And at General Electric the increase in demand for high end dishwashers and refrigerators dwarfs sales growth of mass market models.”
The current economic situation is untenable and a disaster in wait of a demagogue to leverage simmering resentments. At some point, many folks are going to wake up and realize that they are eating Spam and crackers for dinner instead of taking the family to Red Lobster, as they did in the “good old days.” And that is when trouble could begin to take root.
If we don’t change the equation, America might follow in the footsteps of Europe and spawn powerful right-wing movements that scapegoat minorities for their financial troubles. The Greek political extremist group Golden Dawn, for example, has started chapters in Los Angeles, Montreal, and New York City. While the number of members remains small, the existence of this neo-Nazi organization in the United States shows that there is no shortage of opportunists waiting for their moment in the sun.
Exacerbating the potential for persecution is the LGBT community’s undeserved reputation for wealth. This is primarily due to the fact that economically privileged gay individuals are the most likely to be visible to the masses. But the majority of people hardly see average LGBT families that are struggling to survive and captive to the same economic forces as their heterosexual peers. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart points out:
“An analysis of Census Bureau 2000 data by the Williams Institute showed that the median income for same-sex couples raising children was $46,200 while for married heterosexual couples raising children it was $59,600. That’s a $13,400 difference. The gap increases to $15,507 when the average income for the gay couple ($59,270) is matched up with that of the straight couple ($74,777).”
Unfortunately, facts have never mattered to our congenitally dishonest foes. The LGBT community ought to be deeply concerned about income inequality and the declining middle class. An unstable economy with great income extremes is not in our best interests as gay people or Americans.