First, let me acknowledge that the rise in inflation over the past few months is real and the struggle of Americans to pay their bills, feed their families, fuel their cars to commute to and from work, and generally meet their basic needs to afford absolutely exacerbates their everyday life.
That is a fact and it needs to be addressed. How to address them, or how to address them, is an important question that I will address below.
As we ponder how to deal with Americans’ dwindling economic means, we need to understand that these economic struggles are not new to many, if not most, Americans, and should not be understood as a result of recent inflationary increases, but also here inflation has certainly multiplied the level of hardship Americans are enduring.
Behind the immediate scourge of inflation is the gross and long-standing—and seemingly growing—economic inequality that divides American society and democracy and points to deeper structural inequalities, even injustices, at work in our economic system.
Media coverage of inflation often glosses over Americans’ ongoing economic struggles to meet basic needs in a nation that defies wealth in abundance, and seems to blame recent and hopefully temporary inflationary pressures for Americans’ struggles , rather than addressing the ongoing economic inequality and injustice Americans face.
If we built a democratically functioning economy, inflation wouldn’t hit Americans so hard. Because so many Americans have already lived and are living on the brink of our grossly stratified society, the effects of inflation are so severe.
News reporting usually doesn’t actually tell this story, reporting with amnesia rather than historical awareness.
Take this editor’s note recently published on CNBC reporting that recent inflation has suddenly enabled a large percentage of Americans to live paycheck to paycheck. Here is a passage:
While the economy isn’t technically in a recession, it’s beginning to feel like it for many Americans. Although wages have increased over the past year, they have not kept pace with inflation. The increase in rent, food and gas prices is making it difficult for many workers to cover their expenses. In April, 61% of consumers said they were living paycheck to paycheck, and that number is likely to rise as prices remain high and borrowing costs also rise.
What we have to recognize is that this situation is not new at all. In 2018, 80% of Americans reported living paycheck to paycheck, as did 78% of workers in 2019. A quick flashback to 2014 shows that 76% of workers lived similarly on the brink of poverty that year. One could go back year after year and find that this economic uncertainty is fairly constant and persistent.
Poverty increased under the Trump administration, and his policies not only did nothing to address the situation, but actually encouraged, even created, those conditions. His massive tax cut on corporations and the wealthiest Americans from 35% to 21% exacerbated income inequality. In fact, we’ve seen companies rake in tens of billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money despite laying off workers.
While unemployment remained historically low to the point of being negligible, so many of the jobs created were part-time or low-wage jobs, creating a class of working poor.
To talk about and portray inflation as the primary or root cause of Americans’ economic woes is to ignore the enduring and underlying injustices in the US economy, industrial relations, and policies that seem ritualistically designed to extract ever more wealth from the producing workers to transfer it to the wealthiest who don’t need it and hoard it.
And blaming inflation for economic problems misleads us into finding the right solution.
For example, the mantra of media coverage is that inflation will hurt President Joe Biden’s re-election chances and even the Democrats in the November midterm elections. The pundits insist voters always take their frustration out on incumbents, even as they say there is very little a president can do to address inflation.
This coverage blinds us to the fact that Biden’s Build Back Better plan contained the very policies that promised to steer the US economy in a more democratic direction and fundamentally reduce economic inequality and the high cost of living for Americans, regardless of inflation way to tackle. The plan proposed measures to make health care and prescription drugs more affordable, help Americans deal with the high cost of child care that may prevent some parents from entering the workforce, make higher education more accessible and affordable, and work well -Pay union jobs while fighting climate change, among other proposals. The plan would also cut taxes for the majority of Americans while raising them to the wealthiest 0.1%, reversing the trend of transferring wealth to the wealthiest Americans and corporations.
And yet the way the media focuses on inflation and blames, if not endorses, Biden plays the dangerous game of confirming the ability of Americans to vote for Republicans out of sheer reaction, America’s working people Not only persistently disregarding families, but actually enacting policies hostile to them, as we have seen under Trump and as we see in their refusal to support Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
Overall, the GOP’s reactionary and hateful agenda is worsening the economy and fueling inflation. For example, as explained by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, one cause of inflation is a labor shortage, which a more robust immigration flow to the US could help address. However, Republican xenophobia and hatred of immigrants are standing in the way of addressing labor shortages, which could help solve some supply chain problems and ease inflation.
However, the media coverage of inflation ignores these broader issues and blinds us to the possible solutions that could help this nation build a more democratic economy.
Tim Libretti is Professor of American Literature and Culture at Chicago State University. A longtime progressive voice, he has published many scholarly and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press association.