By now, you’ve surely heard of the Texas drunken-driving case that has sparked national outrage — angering victims, upsetting psychologists and sending Twitter into overdrive. A 16-year-old who killed four people while intoxicated was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and treatment in a tony rehab facility.
As unusual as that example of mercy may be, it was the rationale offered by a defense expert that drove observers into a frenzy. A psychologist hired by defense attorneys told the court that the young man’s tragically irresponsible actions were the fault of his rich parents, who didn’t rear him with sufficient discipline. As a consequence, G. Dick Miller said, the teenager suffered from “affluenza” and didn’t know right from wrong. (Many other psychologists have disagreed vociferously, saying there is no such diagnosis.)
It’s hard to stomach that notion, especially since Judge Jean Boyd of the Fort Worth Juvenile Court seems to have swallowed it whole. I can’t imagine how bitter and resentful — not to mention mystified — the victims’ families must be.
But Boyd might have unintentionally done us a favor by opening the door to a dank, dark room that we have worked too hard to keep closed. She has let out the putrid aromas of economic inequality, which we have long ignored. Wealthy people, the judge’s sentence reminds us, have huge advantages over ordinary folk, despite an American mythology about equal opportunity. And the opportunity gap is growing as inequality cleaves the country into haves and have-nots.
The very terms “wage gap” and “disappearing middle class” have become clichés in Washington, often muttered by pandering politicians and comfortable journalists who have little real understanding of the effect that income inequality has had on the lives of ordinary Americans. But the fallout is real enough.
Since the 1970s, the wages of working-class Americans — those without college degrees — have stagnated and fallen further and further behind. Meanwhile, the wealthy have only become more prosperous.
Despite what you may believe to be true, the individual’s work ethic has little to do with those results. No matter how hardworking you are, a job at Walmart won’t give you much in the way of financial security. And if you are born to parents who can give you a trust fund, it doesn’t matter how little you work; you’ll still have plenty of security.
The trends that have eaten away at the great American middle — including globalization and technological gains — have been evident for decades, but the Great Recession accelerated the consequences. Even as economic data show huge gains in productivity, the jobless rate remains high, stuck at around 7 percent. (Translation: Companies have found ways to get more and more work done with technology, whether it’s through eliminating bank tellers and installing more ATMs, or using more robots in factories.)
This is a complex problem with no easy answers, but we could make a start toward solutions by looking squarely at the issue and refusing to call it by other names. Here are a few things it’s not: indolence, racism, the failure of the welfare state.
Mitt Romney became appropriately infamous for his condescending dismissal of the “47 percent” who he claimed don’t want to work, but that wrong-headed idea doesn’t stop with Romney. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), running for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, has proposed that poor children sweep school cafeteria floors in exchange for free or reduced lunches, a deal that would get the “myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch,” he said.
But liberals often get it wrong, too — confusing rampant income inequality with racism. The legacy of racism has certainly contributed to the wealth gap between black and white Americans, but class is now a bigger factor in a child’s future than race. President Obama’s children are virtually assured a bright future, while millions of their cohort among the working classes are not.
The class divide is one of the biggest problems now facing the country, and it’s time we started to confront it. Judge Boyd’s unjust sentence is just the provocation to force us to take it on.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Jeffrey Simms Photography via Flickr