The rich get richer: And the American Dream is elusive for too many

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"The hopes of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved poverty or self-serving wealth."

-- Franklin D. Roosevelt

When President Roosevelt spoke these words in his third inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1941, it was in the context of inspiring confidence in American democracy at a time when freedom itself seemed to some "an ebbing tide" with Nazi Germany dominating Europe and the Japanese empire poised for further expansion in Asia.

Having seen the nation gripped by the Great Depression, Roosevelt saw clearly the threats to democracy that lay within and beyond the nation's borders. He saw what few today -- with eyes focused on Syria or other countries blighted by autocratic governments or Islamic terrorists -- cannot see, although it is in plain view.

He saw that the state of America's strength as a democracy also depended on reducing economic inequality at home. Yet, more than 70 years later, that may be the greatest unacknowledged problem of this generation.

A recent report documents its dimensions: The division between the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and everybody else is the widest it has been since the 1920s.

As The Associated Press reported, economists at the University of California at Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University, using Internal Revenue Service figures dating from 1913, showed that U.S. income equality has been growing for almost three decades.

Last year, the very wealthiest Americans earned more than 19 percent of the nation's household income. The top 10 percent had a record 48.2 percent of total earnings. It is true that the wealthiest Americans lost more than others during the Great Recession of 2007-09, but they have rebounded dramatically. Some 95 percent of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent.

Why does this matter? Because the growing prosperity pie is leaving most Americans behind. That subverts the democratic idea of America as a place where the common man and woman, by dint of enterprise and hard work, can have a good life, increasing family prospects generation unto generation.

Not so much any more. Jobs have been outsourced and unions, once the engine of the middle class, have been diminished. And the political response? Little or nothing, despite a few protests, first from the Occupy movement, lately from fast-food workers struggling to survive. The political obsessions are elsewhere. The size of government is seen as the problem, not the plight of many people.

Indeed, to some ways of thinking, there is no undeserved poverty, as FDR called it. The poor are to be deprived of a raise in the minimum wage and certainly a living wage. Politicians want to deny them universal health care, take away their entitlements and blame them for not having a job even when not enough jobs exist.

Make no mistake: This is not a suggestion for redistributing wealth. Most Americans do not believe in a system that requires equal outcomes; they want equal opportunity and that is precisely what income inequality sabotages. The rich have every advantage -- business connections, tax breaks, money to invest, affluent communities where good schools can be found and politicians serving their every whim. Self-serving wealth perpetuates itself. Alas, so does poverty.

The nation's leaders need to wake up and remember the fading American Dream. What Roosevelt said in his 1941 address rings true today: "To us there has come a time, in the midst of swift happenings, to pause for a moment and take stock -- to recall what our place in history has been, and to rediscover what we are and what we may be."

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