WASHINGTON – On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, a group of homeless veterans were wrapped in soiled blankets, camping out at the entrance to the Veterans Administration. They sat beneath a sign cast in bronze that quoted President Lincoln’s sacred promise “… to care for him who shall have borne the battle.”
And just down the block, past the metal barricades and the red-white-and-blue bunting set up along the inaugural parade route, limousines lined up three deep in front of the Washington Hotel, where big donors in gowns and hand-tailored suits were just heading out for a string of parties for which tickets can run as high as $20,000.
It’s a stark vignette in Washington, DC, at a time when the bitter ironies in the age of rising income inequality are hard to overlook.
If there were a thermal mapping of income inequality in America, the nation’s capital would be pulsing red. Consider that the top 5 percent of households in the District of Columbia made an average of more than $500,000 last year, while the bottom 20 percent earned less than $9,500. That is an income ratio of 54 to 1.
And that represents a startling rise since 1993, when the income gap between the top and bottom rungs in the nation’s capital was 39 to 1. Indeed, the distance between the income level of the wealthiest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent in Washington, DC is greater than in any of the 50 states. This intense concentration of inequality comes at a time when the United States as a whole is enduring levels of income inequality not seen since the 1920s.
But Washington, DC is not only a place where income inequality is on display at nearly every turn in the city, it is also a place where the last 20 years of government policies that have led to income inequality have been produced.
This inauguration marks the re-election of a president who pushed into the debate the issue of the government's role as a leveling force, and who challenged Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who for many embodied the way in which government tax policy had favored private investment firms like the one Romney headed.
The presidential debate showed a clear fault line. The right said that the government meddles too much in flawed efforts to equalize the economy. The left said the government does too little and needs to do more. And now that debate has moved to Capitol Hill as congress considers Obama’s proposed raise in taxes, particularly on the top 2 percent of the country.
The debate seems to be shifting, or at least broadening. Instead of just focusing on how the government distributes wealth down to poor Americans, the president is now calling for congress to look at how the government is distributing wealth up to rich Americans.
Distribution to the wealthy is at play in the nation's capital, in particular, where lobbyists for financial services and corporations have pushed forward tax policies that have favored a small elite, amassing enormous amounts of wealth.
The resultant rise in inequality has not gone unnoticed by Democrats supportive of a president who has called the issue of income inequality “one of the greatest challenges” the nation faces. President Obama has vowed to address the issue through a change in tax policies that have favored the rich for more than 20 years. Whether he will live up to that promise in the next four years remains to be seen.
But the issue was served up for consideration yesterday at a brunch for big donors to the National Democratic Institute, a foreign policy arm of the Democratic Party. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served under President Clinton and is now NDI’s Board Chairman, listed “income inequality” as among the top three policy concerns for the president’s second term. The first two items on the list were confronting terrorism and containing nuclear weapons.
“Our country is better when we don’t have such high levels of inequality,” Albright said, noting that her parents came to America as immigrants. She said that she herself benefitted from a post-war period when the middle class was growing and there was greater mobility for those trying to move up the socioeconomic ladder.
“We just don’t have that as much today,” she said.
In her remarks to the gathering, she said that income inequality was not only a domestic economic problem, but a global concern that should be viewed as a national security issue.
“Now throughout the world, the poor know what the rich have. So it’s not just wrong, but "dangerous” and “destabilizing,” she said.
“There is no absolute line between terrorism and poverty," she explained, adding that “poverty certainly plays a role” in breeding the kind of resentment that leads to violence against America.
At home, the peril of income inequality is more direct. As inequality rises, so does the concern that the nation is losing the American dream.
For the group of homeless men lying on flattened cardboard boxes in front of the Veterans Administration, there was something even more sacred than the American dream. That, they said, was for America to fulfill its promise to veterans who struggle to get by after serving their country.
Brett Glidewell, 22, sat in a folding chair at the entrance to the VA. Both of his parents were veterans, he said, and he grew up on an army base in Louisiana. He said his parents were severely impacted by post traumatic stress disorder after serving combat tours in Iraq. As their lives imploded, he said, the family was broken and scattered. He ended up homeless and drifted to DC in the last six months. He was here, he said, to tell the Veterans Administration that it owed more to veterans like his parents. Several of the other men nodded and cheered him on as he spoke.
“It’s like there is two Americas now, there is the one for those who are doing well and who keep doing well. And then there is everybody else,” he said. “And of all those who are struggling, and there are a lot of people struggling, I think you’d have to say that someone who fought for the country deserves better.”
More from GlobalPost: The Great Divide: Global income inequality and its cost