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bread and butter

Our United States of Inequality

Today we embark on a yearlong project exploring what has become another "inconvenient truth” – the pain that economic inequality has brought to America.

What were once somewhat quaintly called “bread and butter” issues have always been part of presidential elections. But with economic inequality showing no signs of abating in America, “bread and butter” has become “bread or butter” – has, in fact, morphed into a set of supremely existential questions in the 2020 race. As the nation’s middle class evaporates faster than a California lake, the old questions of what size house to buy or which university to send the kids to (private or state?) have been replaced by starker realities: Can we rent an apartment 30 minutes from work? Can we afford a year’s expense at a community college?


Nearly three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, in spite of a growing economy, low- and middle-income Americans find themselves in increasingly dire straits when it comes to the most basic of needs and aspirations: health care, housing, higher education, retirement savings, employee rights.

A few statistics go a long way in painting a picture of America’s descent into economic polarization:

    • An estimated 43.5 percent of the total U.S. population – 140 million people— are either poor or low-income.
  • The median white family has 41 times more wealth than the median black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family.
  • CEO compensation has grown 940 percent since 1978, while typical worker compensation has risen only 12 percent during that time.
  • Three men own as much as the bottom half of Americans.

The reasons for this condition are no mystery to anyone familiar with America’s economic and political history since the end of the Great Society. From the 1970s onward we have experienced an implacable assault on the “good life” that many once took for granted as well as on the social safety net that had protected our most vulnerable neighbors.


This week Capital & Main embarks on “United States of Inequality,” an ambitious, yearlong project to explore what, in addition to climate change, has become the second “inconvenient truth” – the hardship that economic inequality has brought to the great majority of America. Our reporters will criss-cross the country, talking to scholars, visionaries, community leaders and advocates as well as to the people who have the least say in decision-making while suffering the most from shortsighted policies.


Our weekly stories will examine the wide spectrum of issues burning through 2020 and how they are (or are not) being addressed by the field of candidates running for president. We will look at the reality of economic inequality in America; how inequality is shaping the experience and views of voters in battleground states; what the leading candidates’ track records are on this defining issue; how the Trump administration has exacerbated inequality; and what ideas to tackle inequality should be part of the national debate in 2020.


In exploring the 2020 election through the lens of inequality, our goal is not only to ask, how did we get here?, but also, where are we going?


Illustration by: Design Urban

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VIDEO: Robert Reich explains how Income Inequality is destroying America.

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Capital & Main’s special series, “United States of Inequality,” will feature articles, interviews, videos and infographics weekly until the November 2020 election. Sign up to get new content as it is being published.