Perhaps it's a sign of just how isolated Congress is that it had to ask for a study to learn about income distribution in this nation.
But it did, and the results are, if not surprising, fascinating. And deeply disturbing.
Consider this from "Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007," released last month by the Congressional Budget Office:
■ After-tax income grew 275 percent for households in the top one percent of income brackets; by 65 percent for the top 20 percent; just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent; and about 18 percent for the bottom fifth;
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■ Between 2005 and 2007, the after-tax income of top 20 percent exceeded that of the other 80 percent;
■ During the 1979-2007 period, capital gains and business income grew while labor income and capital income fell.
■ Tax policy added to the concentration of wealth, shifting away from progressive income tax to less-progressive payroll taxes.
Last week, the Brookings Institution explained where all this is taking our nation. It released a study charting another kind of concentration, of extreme poverty.
The study found that the number of people living in extreme poverty neighborhoods — where 40 percent or more of residents are below the federal poverty line — grew by a third in the last decade.
This concentration of extremely poor people strikes at the heart of one of our most cherished ideals — upward mobility.
The truth is that while some extraordinary individuals may be able to rise to wealth from these economic wastelands, they are fighting steep odds. Very poor neighborhoods almost always come with lower-performing schools, higher crime, worse health and less access to health care. It's hard to build equity in a home because neighborhood conditions don't boost property values.
Why should the rest of us care?
Empathy aside, the numbers aren't good. Poverty breeds crime and our prisons are already so full they're bankrupting us. But that's only part of it. The energy of our economy and our culture arise from this belief in upward mobility, of everyone having a shot at the good life. We become a very different nation if we give that up.
This is what's at stake in the debates in Washington.
It's easy to understand, when you look at these numbers, why so much money has poured into politicians and parties that oppose increasing taxes on millionaires or capital gains; why expanding access to health care and improving education aren't important to those already on top. Talk about class warfare.
What's harder to understand is why the 80 percent who have pretty much been left out of the party these last three decades give up the capital they still have as voters to tolerate or support these disastrous policies.