The equal opportunity message
The rich get richer, the poor get poorer: to some, this may be a familiar story, but the political fallout is less predictable.
Obviously, the significance of income inequality at this year’s election will depend on whether the much- touted economic rebound does eventuate, and how widely the fruits of recovery are shared.
If voters believe the current economic settings will eventually lift their own boat as well, they will be less likely to gamble that a change of government is needed to improve their lot.
On one hand, the polls have shown that the concern about income inequality has risen among the electorate at large over the past three years – to where it now ranks ahead of unemployment or the cost of living.
On the other hand, last week’s Fairfax poll also showed a significant rise in optimism that the economy is on the right track.
Ultimately, voters will have to decide whether they think the current economic settings are part of the problem, or part of the solution. Even if the optimists are right, significant levels of income inequality do seem likely to persist, despite any recent improvements.
In the Salvation Army’s latest State of the Nation Report, for example, there were still 202,500 children living in benefitdependent households in 2013.
Surprisingly, the Obama administration may have some political tips to offer on how to garner public support on this issue.
Since Obama shone a spotlight on income inequality in his State of the Nation address last month, the White House has framed this issue as being one of ‘‘equal opportunity,’’ and not ‘‘income inequality’’ as such.
Obama has caught some flak for doing so.
Predictably, much of it has been from Republicans, who think that Obama (and Pope Francis as well) is preaching socialism.
Yet many Democratic Party notables also want to see Obama talking more about jobs and wages as the proven route out of poverty.
Regardless, the couching of this issue in terms of ‘‘ equal opportunity’’ may be a more potent ( not weaker) message when it comes to winning the votes of the uncommitted, especially in the context of an improving economy.
As American consultant Ruy Teixeira says, US voters may tell pollsters they believe in job creation, or in policies that protect the middle-class and the poor.
However, the message that pollsters have regularly found to have the strongest resonance is the one that says the economy needs to work for everyone, and not just for the fortunate few.
American pollsters call this concept ‘‘Everyone Economics’’.
By framing income disparity as a crisis of opportunity and loss of social mobility, Obama has been able to tap into public anxiety that our economic system now benefits only the wealthy and corporations, while stacking the deck against everyone else.
‘‘Everyone Economics’’, Teixeira says, is based on an inclusive populism, rather than on pitting one class against another.
Ironically, in this country both Labour leader David Cunliffe and Prime Minister John Key like to emphasise their humble origins.
In that respect, both are evidence to the contrary of any ‘‘equal opportunity’’ or ‘‘ loss of social mobility’’ message that Cunliffe, at least, might want to promote.
This year, how such messages are framed – rather than the policy mix – is likely to determine the election outcome.