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From the Far Margins

Closing the chasm


Our nation sits at a precipice. Two rich people just battled for the highest office in the land while ordinary Americans struggled with unprecedented levels of debt and bills they may never have the capacity pay off. In northern Idaho, effigies of black men hang from nooses by the roadsides. Elected officials rile armed crowds to hunt down refugees and people of Islamic faith. In Canyon County, huge churches preach hate for refugees who are the classmates of their congregations' children. Repurposed slurs fly—even the "n" word circulates again on the internet and in the air.

We can pretend the conflict is far away, but it's all around us. This next presidency will be defined by what's done about the divisions among us—the rhetoric, the violence, and the vast chasm between the wealthy and the ordinary wage earner. It will be defined by what is done about the levels of debt, the desperation and the longing for the prosperity that America's middle class once mortgaged itself to have.

The U.S. Census Bureau has a ticker on its website that counts the growth in world population. Stare at those numbers for a bit and what comes to mind might be the static nature of the world's resources—the finite area of habitable or arable land, the limitations of freshwater supplies. What it means is that whatever we own or depend on for survival, 60 seconds from now 150 more people will be born with whom to share it.

Caucasians make up 16 percent of the world's population; yet, for the most part, we and the elite in Asian countries hold nearly all the world's wealth. Even the most modestly prosperous family in the U.S. possesses orders of magnitude greater income and property as the average non-white family almost anywhere in the world.

That inequality extends to families within our own borders. According to a Brandeis University study, the average white family has more than 15 times as much wealth as the typical black or Latino family in the U.S.—and this gap in wealth is only widening.

The crash of Wall Street, the loss of pensions, and the unregulated fiction of mortgages and the stock market essentially pushed America's middle class into the low-income column. We slid downward—sometimes quickly—under the weight of medical, educational, mortgage and consumer debt.

Look into the angry faces at a Donald Trump rally or listen to the rhetoric of the disaffected from Jill Stein voters and former Bernie Sanders supporters, and you see the rise of tension over white income inequality and fear for the future.

If the death of black and Latino American citizens on city streets has ignited protests and a movement begging the nation to value their lives, beneath it all is an ugly truth. Analyst after analyst has pointed the finger at racist redlining, biased lending practices, job discrimination, a poor minimum wage, racial profiling, excessive fines and sentencing, and state legislatures' refusal to fund public and higher education not just as sources of tension over race, but as real sources of income inequality. These forces have affected all Americans, but especially black and Latino families.

We all look for someone to blame for our desperation or disappointment. The national sentiment toward the very wealthy is especially ugly among the young. Some white American youths still seem to imagine that one day they, too, will be billionaires. But what happens when a generation sees no hope of improvement in what is too often a life of mounting debt and a dead-end, low-wage job? Too many of us perhaps don't see up-close the faces of the homeless or those who populate our prisons, or the invisible ranks of those who've been so long unemployed. Too often it is vividly clear that our nation is most intensely failing its families of color.

We can sit here counting votes or looking up at the sky to celebrate, but that chasm is there and it's swallowing the country around us. Anyone who marvels at how Trump could get half of the nation's 135 million voters to vote for him is not paying attention to what's happening to American families. People are angry and the president who promised change and hope did not have the power to force Congress to make change or pass policy to give hope. The next president had better.

What our new president does about the causes of debt and desperation, how the president heals racial inequality and addresses the rhetoric of violence, will mean everything to avoiding violence on the streets in our state.

May Congress see the danger in this and grow wise. May we all recognize that when we pay taxes, which reduce the cost of a college education, increase wages or reduce medical or educational debt, then we create a stronger and healthier economy.

The ticker on the U.S. Census site is still moving. We have to learn to share, to be generous in healing the gash that is the vast income gap in our nation. If we don't, we will all sink—not just the "poor," but all of us.

Nicole LeFavour is a longtime educator and activist, and served in both the Idaho House of Representatives and Idaho State Senate.