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Paul Ryan Is Wrong: Talking About Income Inequality Isn’t Dividing America, Actual Income Inequality Is

Does Ryan think we should just ignore income inequality?

Today, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) delivered a speech titled “Saving the American Idea: Rejecting Fear, Envy and the Politics of Division.” In his remarks, Ryan blasted President Obama for “sowing social unrest and class resentment” and said that the rhetoric of progressive thinkers highlighting economic inequality is dividing the country.

But the truth is that the words of President Obama are not the cause of division in America today. Rather, the harsh economic realities and growing inequality in the country caused by years of right-wing policies are actually responsible for dividing Americans — dividing their wealth and income and siphoning off the nation’s riches to the top one percent.

In his speech, Ryan pointed to a survey that found 93 percent of a select-group of 500 “successful entrepreneurs” came from middle or lower-class backgrounds. Ryan says this is the “American story” of the “land of upward mobility.”

But the problem is that America is increasingly not the “land of upward mobility” and that entrepreneurs simply are not forming the ranks of the top one percent. First, let’s take a look at the following chart of the occupations of the one percent of richest Americans assembled by Mother Jones from data John Bakija of Williams College collected. Only 2.3 percent of the top 1 percent are entrepreneurs. Much of the top 1 percent come from the medical, technology, and banking sectors, all of which are highly subsidized and/or protected from free market competition by the government:

Meanwhile, income gains since 1979 have gone overwhelmingly to the top 1 percent of Americans, as this chart from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities compiled using Congressional Budget Office data shows:

The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home 24 percent of the nation’s income. In 1976, they only took 9 percent. Additionally, this group of Americans holds more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Ryan may consider these facts inconvenient or impolitic, but the truth is that the problem is not talking about income inequality, the problem is the actual income inequality. A New York Times/CBS News poll released today finds that two-thirds of Americans want to see a more even distribution of wealth in the country. Ryan would do well to heed their call and work on promoting policies like expanding labor rights and instituting fairer taxation that have reduced income inequality in the past. He should not scold people for simply pointing out the facts and wanting better lives.