At 6:30 a.m. every weekday, Ethan Floerke wakes up for his full-time job teaching language arts to 100 seventh graders at Lake Mills Middle School in Wisconsin. Almost nine hours later, at 3:05 p.m., he sets down his books and puts on a uniform. It’s time to deliver pizzas, many of which go to the families of his students. Floerke works the part-time job about 25 hours a week.
It’s an exhausting grind, but it’s still not enough for the 29-year-old to pay his loans and bills while also setting aside savings. In the summer, Floerke teaches summer school, delivers pizza, and also works for the parks department as a security guard on the public beaches. “I am working 70-plus hours a week during the summer,” he told BuzzFeed News.
This is Floerke’s sixth year teaching. One of five children, he graduated college in December 2013 with $30,000 in student loans and began teaching at a salary of about $32,500.
After working for over a year, he bought a used 2010 Jeep Patriot, taking out a $14,000 loan. Two months later, it died. He bought another car, and within a few weeks, his debt for cars alone had skyrocketed to $30,000.
“That one decision, that terrible car decision, and I'm $60,000 in debt. It was terrifying,” he said.
Thus began Floerke’s adult life.
On the other side of the country, in New York, another young man was starting his life. He’s asked to be called Tom for this story, to protect his privacy.
Floerke and Tom have many similarities. Both are well-educated millennial American men born who grew up in low- to middle-income families. But they differ in one respect: Floerke’s income puts him in roughly the 40th percentile of American income. (That is, 60% of the country makes more than he does, 40% makes less.) Tom’s base salary, which today is $210,000 a year, places him in the 92nd percentile.
And on this one difference, an entire decade turned.
Nothing has been felt more profoundly by Americans over the last decade than the widening gulf in wealth. The gap between the richest and poorest Americans is at its highest levels in 50 years, according to the US Census Bureau. The wealthiest 10% of Americans now hold two-thirds of all household net worth, and everyone else — the other 90% — share the other third.
In 1986, roughly when Tom and Ethan were born, the Gini index, the standard measurement of income inequality, stood at 0.375 in the United States. In 2018, that number reached 0.49, the highest measurement ever recorded in this country. (0.0 means a perfectly equal distribution of income, while 1.0 means a single person would receive all the income.)
Only a very small number of potential items on the national agenda actually come to dominate our political life. And at the opening of the decade, it looked unclear that economic inequality would be one of them. In 2011, the Occupy movement came and went — an inchoate venting of collective anger that seemed to disappear without a trace. Yet it shaped the Dickensian lens through which we viewed the rest of the 2010s.
Inequality has become the centerpiece of American national politics.
Ethan Floerke was in high school, his older twin siblings in college, when his father lost his job. His mother, a nurse, would soon face with her own health problems. “That's really when the credit cards started coming into play,” he recalled. “For the last 10 years, [my dad] was so negative: ‘Oh, I'm never going to be able to retire. This is this is my life now.’ And he was exhausted, just completely stressed and wrecked.”
Meanwhile in New York, Tom graduated from law school in 2009 with six figures in student loan debt. “The most my mom ever made was, like, $30,000,” he told BuzzFeed News. A job offer from a law firm, where he worked as a summer associate, evaporated when the economy crashed, so he was working as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, earning $150 on the rare good day and $35 on a bad day. But Tom had married the daughter of a doctor and a lawyer. He didn’t know it yet, but that would change his life.
The soil in which the two men were planted was the Great Recession, an 18-month period from late 2007 to mid-2009 when the economy slowed, the housing market collapsed, joblessness rose to levels not seen since the ’80s, stock markets crashed, and the financial industry was thrown into turmoil.
Just one month into his presidency, President Barack Obama’s plan to help people facing foreclosure — the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan — drew outrage from CNBC editor Rick Santelli, who ranted on Squawk Box that the government was promoting bad behavior and subsidizing “the losers’ mortgages” and proposed a Chicago tea party where “we’re going to be dumping some derivative securities” into Lake Michigan.
Within hours, OfficialChicagoTeaParty.com was live. The media dubbed it the “rant heard around the world.”
In Wisconsin, the recession led to deep cuts in state government spending.
“The recession has hit Wisconsin harder than most state governments, especially when it comes to lost tax revenues and the size of the hole in its budget,” according to a Pew report in 2009. “On top of that, unemployment is climbing as the state’s largest sector — manufacturing — sputters. Wisconsin’s history of budget shortfalls and pattern of borrowing frequently to cover operating expenses, among other measures, made it poorly positioned to weather the most recent severe economic downturn.”
Floerke was pursuing a degree in education at the time. “I remember teachers that have been teaching for 20-plus years telling us, ‘You need to do something else. This is not a profession to get into right now.’ And you would hear these stories every single day,” he said.
When Republican Scott Walker became governor of Wisconsin in 2011, he proposed Act 10, the "Wisconsin budget repair bill," which called for major cuts in state aid to school districts, increased the amount employees paid for their health insurance and pensions, and eliminated many collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Teachers and other state workers protested for months in 2011. Tens of thousands of them swarmed Madison on Feb. 16, chanting “Kill the bill” and “Hey hey, ho ho / Scott Walker has to go!” On March 12, after Walker signed the bill, the crowd outside the Wisconsin State Capitol swelled to 85,000 to 100,000 people, bigger than the protests in Madison during the Vietnam War. Farmers drove in 50 tractors to participate in the protests. "This is what democracy looks like," people cheered.
“We had teachers and professionals from all walks of life across state lines that would come and help advocate with us,” Floerke recalled. Among education students at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, “everyone just decided, in solidarity, we were going to walk out of class.”
In Washington, DC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — an agency authorized by the 2010 Dodd–Frank bill but originally proposed in 2007 by then–Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren — launched in July. “This agency is ready to be a cop on the beat for American families — and I couldn’t be prouder,” said Warren, whom Obama had named a special adviser for the bureau.
Then on Sept. 17, 2011 — three days after Warren announced her candidacy for a Massachusetts Senate seat — the Occupy Wall Street movement took off. After a call for action by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, nearly 1,000 people, who had organized on social media, staged a demonstration in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s Financial District. Signs floated amid the crowds with messages like “People Not Profits” and “End the Oligarchy.”
Demonstrators set up sleeping bags and tents. They did mass yoga. Soon, there were drum circles. Crosby & Nash did an acoustic performance. The protesters were largely affluent, white, and highly educated, according to a study by the City University of New York. Anthropologist and activist David Graeber described them as “young people bursting with energy, with plenty of time on their hands, every reason to be angry, and access to the entire history of radical thought.”
The New York protesters remained in Zuccotti Park for two months before they were ousted by police. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the “health and safety conditions became intolerable.”
Tom, who had tried to start his own law firm “with very little success,” was waiting tables during Occupy. “I was trying to get a job, and my view on it was, man, these people aren't even fucking trying to work and I’m busting my ass up here,” he said. “Quite honestly, I thought, I bet you’re going to tip me poorly later.”
That fall, Tom received a call from his wife’s uncle, offering him a job at the same law firm that wasn’t able to hire him after graduation.
Amid protests against the 1%, capital rapidly accumulated on the West Coast, as American tech recovered from the dot-com bust and began its incredible decade. Instagram had just launched its iOS app. Apple exceeded ExxonMobil as the most valuable company in the world in August. Uber commenced its expansion from a San Francisco–based service to cities around the country and, by December, had made its way to Paris.
In 2012, as the country prepared for another presidential election, Facebook pulled off the largest-ever tech IPO in May, raising $16 billion. At age 28, Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth shot up to $19.1 billion, making him the world’s 29th richest person.
But the unemployment rate was still above 8%, and it was already time for another election. In his campaign kickoff speech, Obama said, “Too many of our friends and family are still out there looking for work. The housing market is still weak, deficits are still too high, and states are still laying off teachers, first responders. This crisis took years to develop, and the economy is still facing headwinds. And it will take sustained, persistent effort — yours and mine — for America to fully recover.” He went on, “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and we’ve been through too much to turn back now.”
His Republican opponent, business executive Mitt Romney, had his own take on what the US needed. Weeks before the election, Mother Jones released a video in which Romney told a closed-door meeting of donors that he believed that 47% of Americans are people who “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
“[M]y job is is not to worry about those people,” said Romney.
Inequality continued to worsen in Obama’s second term. According to a report by the economist Emmanuel Saez, the incomes of the richest 1% of households increased by 31.4% between 2009 and 2012, representing 95% of all new income gains, while the remaining 99% of households captured the other 5%.
Floerke graduated from college in December 2013 and worked as a substitute teacher before taking a job at Lake Mills School District. “I quickly realized just how far $30,000 actually goes.” After paying his bills, he usually had $20 to $30 left in his bank account at the end of the month.
To keep costs down, Floerke rented a one-bedroom unit in an old farmhouse for about $600 a month. “At first when I started living there, I'm like, oh, this looks so cool because it was old. I've got this room off my bedroom and I call my Narnia room because it's got a really small door that opens up behind a bookcase. But it's lost its charm after six years,” he said. “I’m freezing at night because the heater unit’s in the middle of the apartment and that's the only place where heat comes out, so it's really cold in the bedroom.”
In 2013, Tom and his wife bought an apartment in New York for $225,000, borrowing the 10% down payment from her parents. “We bought in an up-and-coming neighborhood. And then the neighborhood came,” he said. Two years later, they sold it for $402,000, allowing them to repay her parents and buy a two-bedroom apartment, where they are now raising their children.
The next year, Warren, now a senator, shared a stage with the economist Thomas Piketty, who was touring the United States to promote his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, to discuss income inequality. “The game right now in America is rigged. It is rigged so that those at the top keep doing better and better, and everyone else is under increasing pressure, is under increasing economic strain,” Warren said.
As concerns about rising inequality grew, there were also signs that the economy was turning a corner. People began buying houses again, fueled by low interest rates, falling unemployment, and improved consumer confidence. But as confidence rose, so did debt. Total mortgage debt climbed to $8.17 trillion in the first quarter of the year from $7.93 trillion during the same period in 2013, according to data from the New York Federal Reserve. Student loans, meanwhile, continued their steady ascent. Students' average debt at graduation rose 56% from 2004 to 2014, from $18,550 to $28,950, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. The class of 2014 was dubbed “the most indebted ever.”
“There was no clear, good decision of what to do next because there was uncertainty everywhere,” said Floerke. “There was a lot of criticism about people going back and living with their parents. And older generations might have criticism about millennials not taking responsibility for their lives. But the reality is, they are trying to start their lives in the most uncertain, difficult times. No wonder that they’re their back home with their parents — because they can't make an actual run of it yet.”
In July 2015, Amazon’s market value exceeded Walmart’s, fueled by the boom in third-party marketplace sellers on the platform. In October, former Amazon Prime Now drivers sued the company, claiming they should have been classified as employees rather than contractors. It was just one of several labor classification lawsuits filed against tech companies that expanded using contract workers, dodging the need to offer consistent pay, benefits, and other worker protections.
“Amazon is not significantly different than Walmart: Its workers are a resource, and resources are expected to maximize output at the lowest possible cost,” the New Republic wrote. “There are some reasons to feel good about this—no company is more committed to making it easier for consumers to buy things—and a lot of reasons to be troubled.”
That year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ net worth shot up by nearly $30 billion to $58.4 billion.
The economy had been growing for years, but the distribution of wealth had become more unequal. “In 2016, the median wealth of upper-income families was seven times that of middle-income families, a ratio that has doubled since 1983,” according to Pew.
By 2016, it was clear that millennials — especially older millennials — were still struggling with the impact of the Great Recession. “Wealth in 2016 of the median family headed by someone born in the 1980s remained 34% below the level we predicted based on the experience of earlier generations at the same age,” according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Older Americans, meanwhile, experienced a stronger recovery. “On balance, wealth has shifted away from younger families toward older families,” the St. Louis Fed reported.
Donald Trump — who pegged his own net worth at more than $10 billion — had his own angle on inequality, blaming the “leadership class in Washington, DC,” during a campaign speech in Wisconsin: “Aren’t you tired of a system that gets rich at your expense? Aren’t you tired of big media, big businesses, and big donors rigging the system to keep your voice from being heard? Are you ready for change?”
It would be Trump’s bleak message of American carnage that would win over America’s rust belt and suburbs, its farmers and older voters — not Bernie Sanders’ or Hillary Clinton’s. In his own way, the poor man’s idea of a rich man was himself a product of American inequality as much as Warren.
In August, on the campaign trail for the Democratic nomination for president, Warren laid out her case. “More and more working families today are hanging on by their fingernails in a country with an economy and a government that works only for those at the very top,” she said. “This crisis didn’t start when Donald Trump walked into the Oval Office. And it won’t just magically disappear the day he walks out of it.”
Warren talked about the fight for the middle class: benefits for full-time, part-time, and gig workers, the Fight for $15, protecting unions, childcare and universal pre-K, affordable health care, and debt-free college.
“This fight is our fight!” she declared to a standing crowd, noisy with applause.
In 2019, Tom’s base salary is now $210,000. “If you're born poor, you have to have a lot of things really go right in order to get out of it,” he said. “I wouldn't say there is necessarily a ceiling to how high you can go — I've seen some people get very, very wealthy. But you have to have so much go right. And truth be told, I'm one of those people.” Those who are born wealthy, on the other hand, he said, “have a floor that they can't really get below. They can fuck up and still be perfectly fine.”
And although Floerke hasn’t fucked up, he is far from fine.
In Wisconsin, the median compensation for teachers fell by 12.6% in inflation-adjusted terms during the five years after Act 10 was passed. Floerke fell ill in 2017. “I couldn't breathe. I was working late at night and my colleague had to call an ambulance for me. I was put on a stretcher and rolled out of the school. I needed my gallbladder removed,” he said. Even with the school’s health insurance, he owed thousands of dollars. When he recovered, he started delivering pizza, a job at which he earns $8.25 an hour plus tips.
Floerke’s teaching salary finally crossed the $40,000 line in 2018, a fifth of what Tom makes, not counting the pizzas. “Without these part-time jobs, I would be living paycheck to paycheck because I'm certainly not making enough teaching to put money away,” said Floerke.
As Floerke drives around Lake Mills to deliver pizza, he sees “the income disparities every single day.” Many of their families seems far worse off than he is. “I feel guilty talking about my situation because it's nothing compared to what these families are dealing with. And I think, My goodness, how are they making it?”