Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a story under the headline, "Lost Decade for Family Income," in which it reported that "living standards at the middle of the middle class have stalled" and worse, with new Census data showing inflation-adjusted income declining almost 5 percent in the last decade for that group.

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a story under the headline, "Lost Decade for Family Income," in which it reported that "living standards at the middle of the middle class have stalled" and worse, with new Census data showing inflation-adjusted income declining almost 5 percent in the last decade for that group.


Not even the considerably-less-than-robust 1970s gave this last, abysmal decade a good run, as median income then still rose almost 2 percent despite high unemployment and inflation.


Meanwhile, using the same Census data, the Associated Press identified a record gap between rich and poor in America - at least since the government started keeping records on household income in 1967 - with the current spread between the top and bottom quintiles at almost double the historic low achieved in 1968. It's easy to manipulate numbers, of course, and critics of this comparison will point out that the Census Bureau doesn't account for taxes paid by the wealthy or safety net benefits received by the poor, both of which would narrow the difference.


In any case, it seems clear that America's middle class has seen better days, and this income inequality - or work inequality, as some would suggest - has all kinds of social implications, from declining birth rates and mobility to fewer marriages. Some young adults are just postponing growing up, as the number of those ages 25 to 34 still living with Mom and Dad has soared - to some 5.5 million now - over the last few years. There's a huge generation wealth gap, with senior citizens no longer in the job market faring well, relatively speaking, over the last decade - their incomes up almost 6 percent - while young adults expected to keep the likes of Social Security afloat struggle. That does not speak well for the sustainability of the system.


Meanwhile, people without jobs or in occupations that don't pay much fork over little to nothing in taxes for the services they consume disproportionately, struggle to keep up with mortgages if they have them at all in a situation that has been at the center of this economic crisis, put off buying things in a consumer-based economy that then founders, resulting in even fewer work opportunities. Call it a vicious cycle. But look at the bright side: This recession has produced a drop in illegal immigration.


Arguably we are witnessing the erosion of the American Dream, or at least a loss in confidence on behalf of millions that they can ever achieve it, which has all sorts of unpleasant ramifications, from crime to declining productivity to long-term dependency. That dream, for most, was not that they might become rich someday, but that a job that compensated them well enough to own a house and car and send the kids to college was within their grasp.


That dream is so much at the core of what it has long meant to be an American in this country that you'd think politicians, alarmed by the above numbers, would be talking about it. Alas, the words "income inequality" rarely pass their lips.


Instead they talk around it, addressing safer issues like the nation's deficit spending and tax policy, or unemployment if it suits their political ambitions. Unfortunately, it's hard for most to engage in the subject without lobbing missiles at the other side from whatever camp they've settled into in the ongoing class war. The poor and sometimes the middle class are lazy and unskilled, or the rich are greedy and unfeeling, take your pick. For the most part both are caricatures. It doesn't really make any sense, as from where we sit the combatants need each other.


Industrialist Henry Ford may have had it figured out. Almost a century ago, he nearly doubled the rate of pay at his factories for most of his assembly line workers (to the then-unheard of $5 per day wage, about $110 in today's dollars) and provided other benefits including a shorter work week on the theory that he would be rewarded in return with a more skilled, efficient and productive workforce, labor peace and workers-turned-consumers who could now afford to buy the products they made - his automobiles. For most of the 20th century, it worked out for both parties.


That attitude seems all but nonexistent today. The pendulum always swings, never in perfect balance. One side, it seems, inevitably goes too far, abusing its leverage of the moment in what is perceived as a zero-sum, winner-take-all contest. As such it's almost impossible to have an honest dialogue about the subject so that both parties can recognize reality and attempt to reach mutually beneficial solutions instead of pummeling one another. Fundamentally, how do we grow the pie so that everybody gets a bite?


We're not sure America can continue to dodge that discussion.


It would be one thing if we could just blame all this on the recession, but in fact middle class wages stagnated well before, which even some prominent conservatives have noted is not healthy for the long run. It would be one thing if the sacrifice from this recession was more shared, but the numbers don't show that in the upper income brackets; maybe we should be talking about "sacrifice inequality." It would be one thing if we were witnessing a trickle-down effect from the Bush tax cuts being in place for most of the last decade, if more Americans were still assured of a rising tide lifting all boats, but it's not reflected in employment numbers. It would be one thing if employers didn't have a legitimate beef about skill levels not being in sync with the demands of this modern economy. It would be one thing if we didn't have to recognize the reality that we operate in a global economy now, quite unlike the one Henry Ford faced in 1914.


Five years ago free market champion and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress that this trend "is not the type of thing which a democratic society - a capitalist democratic society - can really accept without addressing." It was true then, it's truer now.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.