I don’t go out for dinner much anymore. Too expensive. After the Great Economic Collapse of 2008 — which dramatically widened the already wide income and wealth gap in this country — I was disheartened to see that most “dinner” restaurants raised their prices. It was as if they were saying, “We know the rest of you can’t afford us, so we might as well go after those who can.”

Add to higher menu prices a 20% tip, 10% tax and an $8 to $10 small glass of (mediocre) wine and suddenly the cost of that meal is inflated by a good 40%.

Mostly I feel gouged, so now when I go out, it’s usually for breakfast or lunch. And I understand why places like Panera in River Forest are so popular.

These days if I want a special dinner, I much prefer having it with friends at home where a full bottle of (better) wine costs as much as a small glass of underwhelming wine in a restaurant.

This is just one of many ways economic inequality plays out nowadays: Many of us drive used cars whereas some can afford to buy new. Such gaps have always existed but they’re more pronounced now. Many rent because they lost or sold their homes (at a loss) when the Great Mortgage Bubble burst.

I prefer renting, but I also know I don’t have a choice. Do I feel deprived? No, but in my experience, renting separates me to varying degrees from those who take homeownership for granted. Is this a problem? It depends. I’ve seen friendships fade because life circumstances exacerbated the differences that already existed — political differences, personal differences, differences in the way we see the world.

As I age, inequality is also becoming a factor in terms of retirement. If I ever get there (questionable), mine will be quite different from some of my friends — less secure, more limited. I made my choices in life and I intend to live with the consequences of those choices, but I know it will affect relationships. At the very least, we won’t see each other as often.

Economic inequality spawns myriad inequities: health care inequality, education inequality, entertainment inequality, technology inequality, information inequality, transportation inequality, cosmetic inequality, fashion inequality, sophistication inequality, inheritance inequality, environment inequality, aesthetic inequality, opportunity inequality, self-esteem/self-confidence inequality. The list goes on. 

Absolute equality, of course, is not a realistic goal. But the wider and more numerous the divides, the more we are separated. We have less and less in common and don’t even realize it because, insulated in our economic ghettos, we don’t encounter one another. 

Meanwhile, increasing inequality breeds injustice. When places like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland erupt in violence, we’re genuinely shocked to discover the underlying injustices that produce the uprisings. How could this happen? Weren’t we making progress?

We simply don’t know what our fellow countrymen and women are going through. Once in a while, though, we’re afforded a glimpse.

Recently, I received two phone calls from a couple in Austin, our neighbor to the east. They were trying to reach someone who had worked on their refrigerator, unsuccessfully it seems. I called them back to let them know they had the wrong number, but I couldn’t help wondering if the repairman was ethical (and competent). Did they pay him an amount they couldn’t afford for a fridge that still didn’t work and then couldn’t reach him to hold him accountable? How awful. Having a working refrigerator is something we take for granted. When it dies, we complain loudly, then dip into savings and buy another. Or in my case, ask a responsive landlord to replace it, which happened a couple of years ago.

What if you don’t have enough money to fix this essential piece of equipment? Or your car when it breaks down. Or your house when the roof leaks. And then what if the police started hassling you, pulling you over because your left tail light doesn’t work. Fining you so you can’t afford to fix the tail light. Then arresting you because you can’t afford to pay the fine. 

Can you imagine? Maybe not. Maybe this is an illustration of our sensitivity divide. There has always been economic inequality and there always will be, so what’s the big deal? If they want to be more equal, they should work harder, make better decisions, do a better job of raising their kids. We all share the same starting line, don’t we? It’s all up to us, isn’t it?

I’m on the wrong side of economic inequality but I’m better off than many. I’m not suffering (yet). For me it’s mostly a question of navigating social awkwardness. Lucky me. But a lot of people are suffering. It’s not right and it’s not good for our country.

Welcome to the Unequal States of America, E Unum Pluribus: Out of One, Many. 

Inequality makes us less united. More importantly, it makes us less connected. We’re living in dramatically different realities.

Different Americas.

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