SEN. JOHN EDWARDS' compelling campaign theme of "Two Americas" should be returned to center stage. Worsening income disparities - greater than at any time since the 1920s - have produced two critical gaps that threaten American democracy.
Upper-middle- and upper-class families that constitute the top 10 percent of the income distribution are prospering while many among the remaining 90 percent struggle to maintain their standard of living. Further, a widening chasm separates the 13,400 families, who on average earn just under $24 million a year, from everyone else.
Two Americas has undone the historic balance between the nation's two most important values: liberty and equality, which pull in different directions. Liberty implies that people have full freedom to do as they choose with their resources. Equality of economic opportunity requires a fair start for all those in the race toward success.
Today, the continuing imbalance between liberty and equality jeopardizes ordinary citizens' economic opportunities, and hence their middle-class status. Yet democracy in America demands a prospering middle class. The imbalance also raises the specter of an aristocracy of wealth, which was anathema to the nation's Founders.
From 1970 to 2000 (adjusted for inflation), the bottom 90 percent's average income stagnated at $27,000 a year. The top 10 percent experienced an average yearly income increase of nearly 90 percent, from $119,000 in 1970 to $225,000 in 2000. The top one-hundredth percent had their average yearly incomes skyrocket by $20,327,482 between 1970 and 2000.
Education provides a stark comparison between the wealthiest families and those struggling at the bottom. Horace Mann, an elite New York City private school, will have a tuition of $26,100 beginning in September. The price may seem high, but it offers the kind of rigorous educational setting that qualifies its graduates for Ivy League schools and similar top-of-the-line institutions.
At Edward Williams Elementary, the poorest school in Mount Vernon, N.Y., 97 percent of the students were black, 90 percent received free lunches and nearly 10 percent lived in homeless shelters.
When reports were assigned during Black History Month on famous black Americans, the library shelves yielded little help. Despite there being numerous books, New York Times columnist Michael Winerip pointed out, "much of the collection is from the 1950s and 1960s and before, when this was a white school."
The Williams Elementary students likely will work in dead-end jobs rather than graduate from any four-year college.
The limited life chances of these poor black students is so at odds with the country's long-held vision of a fair start in life that it is best described as un-American.
In Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues and Diversity in the Liberal State, the centrist social philosopher William Galston wrote: "The life chances of individuals should not be determined by such factors as race, economic class, and family background." But the many Williams Elementary-like schools around the nation make a mockery of any claim of a fair start.
The statesmen who produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution believed that equality of opportunity resulted in national efficiency. They opposed inherited wealth because the heir who took over the family business would not necessarily be the individual most able to run it at maximum efficiency. Hence, inherited wealth could be the enemy of national efficiency.
As the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood wrote: "As long as the social channels of ascent and descent were kept open, it would be impossible for any artificial aristocrats or overgrown rich men to maintain themselves for long." National efficiency further required a strong public education system.
Were the creators of the republic to return for a day, they would be appalled at schools that hold back the stimulation of talent. They would also strongly support continuing the inheritance tax because it was intended to ensure that those with the greatest skills, not less-able heirs, could most efficiently use that wealth.
Restoring the balance between liberty and equality demands that the redistribution of income upward must be redirected toward the bottom 90 percent. The wealthy will cry "class warfare," but it is the wealthy who began that war and created the dangerous imbalance.
The great statesmen of the 18th century would applaud restoring the balance between liberty and equality because it would increase the life chances of most citizens and help breathe new life into a now-diminished American democracy.
Walter Williams, professor emeritus at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs, is the author of Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy (Georgetown University Press, 2003).