Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

'My income makes me feel _______'

By John D. Sutter, CNN
January 10, 2014 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson visits a family in Inez, Kentucky, during a tour of poverty-stricken areas of the country in April 1964. Earlier that year, Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in his State of the Union address. He then worked with Congress to pass more than 200 pieces of legislation, which included early education programs and social safety nets such as Medicare and Medicaid. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson visits a family in Inez, Kentucky, during a tour of poverty-stricken areas of the country in April 1964. Earlier that year, Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in his State of the Union address. He then worked with Congress to pass more than 200 pieces of legislation, which included early education programs and social safety nets such as Medicare and Medicaid.
HIDE CAPTION
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN iReport asks readers to say how their income makes them feel
  • The assignment follows a series by John Sutter on income inequality
  • Sutter reported on the "most unequal place in America"
  • He says the war on poverty should morph into a war on inequality

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- "Less than human."

"Lost."

"Courageous."

"Unwanted."

Those are a just few of the dozens of responses CNN iReport got when we asked our online community how their incomes make them feel.

"My income makes me feel unwanted because I, like many people, have to rely on food assistance," said Marcus Kastler, a 31-year-old from Kansas. "There is a huge gap that is unfair and unrealistic. (Low) Minimum wage keeps this gap wide because you can't advance without higher education. We need to start more entry level jobs so that low income can work their way up. Lower the cost to go to college so we can afford to go."

iReport: My income makes me feel ...

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

Plenty of pundits this week are talking about America's "War on Poverty," which has lasted 50 years now. Somewhat missing from the conversation is the war that has emerged since the 1964 State of the Union address, when President Lyndon B. Johnson, as The Nation describes it, "slowly put on his black-framed reading glasses, looked around at the assembled dignitaries and immediately issued a call to action" on American poverty.

America's new war is on income inequality.

It's time we put our glasses on and saw this shift clearly.

I started reporting on income inequality last year because CNN readers wisely voted me to cover that topic as part of the Change the List project. I spent about two weeks reporting in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, which has the largest rich-poor gap in the nation. There, I learned that the income gap can get so wide that people don't understand each other anymore.

That's what splits one America into two.

Related: The most unequal place in America

How to change course? That's something I've wrestled with in recent months. Anyone who says they have all of the answers is lying to you. But I do think one way we can start to knit our nation back together is to talk about income inequality -- to acknowledge how different America is today from the time of John F. Kennedy and Johnson, when the rich weren't so stratospherically different from the rest of us, and when the minimum wage was actually worth more in real dollars than it is now.

It's clear the nation has been diverging. Since the late 1970s, the United States went from being a relatively egalitarian country to one of the more unequal places in the world. America is more unequal than Russia, Kenya and Pakistan, according to the CIA World Factbook. And the 1% continues to do better than the rest: That group saw 86.1% real income growth from 1993 to 2012, according to a UC Berkeley analysis. The bottom 99% of the population only saw 6.6% growth in their incomes during that time.

Related: Is income inequality morally wrong?

It's not about the numbers, though -- it's about society. There's research to show more unequal countries tend to have problems with health, education, incarceration and infant mortality. There's an empathy gap, too, researchers have argued in books such as "The Spirit Level," which was written by two epidemiologists. People stop knowing each other.

That's why we decided to ask iReporters to submit essays, videos and photos about how their incomes make them feel. The goal was to initiate a conversation about the increasingly wide range of economic experiences in the United States.

Aimee Clark, a 30-year-old in Colorado, said her income makes her feel "lost."

"I feel lost because although we are not in poverty anymore, we are not financially safe," she said. "We still live paycheck to paycheck, just not as dire as years before. I feel lost because I can taste the 'American Dream,' but it's like a tease."

Related: War on poverty isn't over

I think many Americans can identify with that limbo.

The high cost of education -- a ladder out of poverty -- was another consistent theme.

"I feel like I'm living from paycheck to paycheck and owe more than I'm worth," said Nicole Lucas of Baltimore. She said she is struggling to pay down student loans while working a part-time job that has no benefits. "People say 'go to school, market yourself, cut back,' etc. However, the recession taught me that you can have a good job, have a 401(k) and have a degree, but still be the last to know your job is going to go under."

Recently, there has been much talk about what would increase "economic mobility" in the United States, which is the term academics use when they're talking about the American Dream. The United States has has fallen behind many European nations in that category. "If you want to live the American Dream," Kate Pickett, a researcher who studies income inequality, told me last year, "you'd better go to Denmark or Finland."

There, it's easier to get ahead.

Related: 5 things the world could teach America

So it's telling that Lucas, the woman in Baltimore, also said the American Dream, to her, is "not sustainable, let alone attainable." It feels out of reach.

Shifting attitudes like that should scare us all. Who wants to live in a country where people don't believe they can get ahead anymore?

Not all of the iReport responses to our query were negative, of course, but I didn't see any reports from the super-rich, either.

(Buffett? Bloomberg? There's still time ...)

Julie West of Columbus, Ohio, said her income makes her feel "grateful." She lost her job in 2008 but found a new, lower-paying gig in 2010.

"Many people that were hit with unemployment in 2008 lost homes, experienced many hardships just as I did," she said. "Many have never fully recovered. I feel like I had been given a chance to turn it around for myself. I will always be grateful."

Related: How to help Inequality, USA

That's pretty incredible, huh? Not just because West has managed to remain "grateful" in the face of hardship but because she's aware that others aren't so lucky.

She has empathy for other Americans.

That's something all of us, regardless of income, could take to heart.

It's not that the War on Poverty is over. It isn't, and it shouldn't be. But extreme poverty exists, now more than in recent decades, alongside extreme wealth.

It's time for "America's longest war" to evolve and expand.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter. CNN iReport's Christina Zdanowicz contributed reporting.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 2142 GMT (0542 HKT)
Columnist John Sutter journeys to the place with the highest level of income inequality in the United States.
November 12, 2013 -- Updated 2230 GMT (0630 HKT)
East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, has the highest income inequality of any county or parish in America. But that can change.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 0220 GMT (1020 HKT)
Meet a storeowner, a nun and a missionary who are trying to bring people together in the most unequal place in America.
November 1, 2013 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
One reader called in tears. Dozens sent e-mails. The overwhelming message: What can we do to help?
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 2314 GMT (0714 HKT)
What does inequality look like where you live? iReport would love to see.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 2306 GMT (0706 HKT)
Meet the man who wanders Lake Providence carrying an American flag.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 0059 GMT (0859 HKT)
You might assume New York is the American capital of income inequality. You'd be wrong.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 2143 GMT (0543 HKT)
Policies that favor the rich keep the gap wide, John Sutter writes.
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 2342 GMT (0742 HKT)
Income inequality is going up, up, up in America. In Brazil, meanwhile, it's been dropping for years.
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 2318 GMT (0718 HKT)
President Obama called it "the defining issue of our time" in his 2012 State of the Union, but he did so without ever uttering the phrase "income inequality."
Learn whether you're a member of the 99% or the famous 1%.
If wages kept pace with productivity, most of us would be richer. But by how much?
The answer may depend partly on your income. Find out their odds with this calculator.
August 23, 2013 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Earlier this week, John Sutter asked readers of his column to submit ideas for a list of "99 must-reads on income inequality." Here's the list.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 1537 GMT (2337 HKT)
Economic justice, as President Obama argued, is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement.
August 7, 2013 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
I'll spare you the stats and simply ask one question that's not considered nearly often enough in the post-Occupy era: Is America's current income distribution fair?
September 17, 2013 -- Updated 1132 GMT (1932 HKT)
We've turned the rich into caricatures.
July 25, 2013 -- Updated 2148 GMT (0548 HKT)
It's getting harder to shock people with stats about income inequality. Maybe the debate should focus on morality.
ADVERTISEMENT