Of all the buzzwords and phrases popping up early in the presidential campaign, "income inequality" must be close to the top of the list. And it's not just Democrats insisting that the nation must deal with it firmly and fast. While Dems Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders are hitting the idea hard, Republican candidates, too, are playing up the notion that people at the bottom of the economic ladder are getting a raw deal while the rich get richer.
In a nutshell, economic inequality refers to the gap between the income of the richest Americans and everyone else. No one disputes that the gap exists, although there is debate about its size.
There are all kinds of subtexts associated with this idea, among them: stagnating middle-class incomes, increasing economic power for the privileged few, barriers to upward mobility for the poor and a culture of cronyism in Washington that protects the well-connected.
And that churns up feelings of envy, outrage, frustration and despair for candidates to tap into as they try to show they understand the economic angst of the middle class.
The prominence of the issue has been building for years, as the share of total income and wealth claimed by the richest Americans has grown. Incomes for the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans rose 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to data compiled by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. For everyone else, it inched up an average of 0.4 percent.
The Occupy protest movement of 2011 and 2012 jump-started a global conversation about the wealth gap, with the rallying cry of "We are the 99 percent."
Everyone from Pope Francis to President Barack Obama picked up on it. In 2013, Obama called economic inequality "the defining challenge of our time."
1. "The top 1 percent earn a higher share of our income nationally than any year since 1928. The people who have been hammered ... are working men and women."
2. "While the average person is working longer hours for lower wages, we have seen a huge increase in income and wealth inequality, which is now reaching obscene levels."
3. "The economy is booming for people at the top. It is not booming for the bottom 90 percent of the workforce in America. The bottom 90 percent, which is most of America, has had stagnant wages for 40 years."
4. "The deck is still stacked in favor of those already at the top. And there's something wrong with that. There's something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker."
5. "Wage stagnation is happening at a time when the cost of everything is going up dramatically. And it's not just that the cost of everything is going up, we have expenses we didn't used to have."
6. "The policy aim of government absolutely should be that government should not contribute to income inequality."
There will be huge debate on this over the next year and a half, and Republicans and Democrats offer far different solutions.
Republicans often to stress giving those at the bottom more opportunity to move up rather than taking something away from those at the top.
Democrats are inclined to look at increasing taxes for those at the top to allow government to do more for those below.
Most of the candidates are still fleshing out their economic proposals. But they've already thrown plenty of ideas in the mix.
Sanders wants the wealthy to pay more taxes. Marco Rubio is pushing a big tax cut. Clinton wants to raise the minimum wage. Ted Cruz wants a "simple flat tax." Rand Paul pushes lower taxes in distressed areas. Jeb Bush wants to give people more opportunities for "earned success."
ODDS OF A CHANGE
Skepticism abounds. Sanders questions whether Clinton or any of the Republicans are ready to take on the "big-money interests who control so much of our economy." Paul thinks Democratic policies make income inequality worse. Republican Carly Fiorina, the former technology executive, says it will take someone from outside Washington to fix things.
Whatever the odds and the hurdles, people are more than ready for a change: For the past 30 years, Gallup reports, polls have consistently found that six in 10 Americans believe the way income and wealth are distributed is unfair.
LOOK WHO'S TALKING
Just about all the 2016 candidates are chattering about income inequality. And when candidates describe the problem, it's sometimes hard to distinguish Republicans from Democrats. See if you can guess who's sounding off here:
GOP CONTENDERS IN IOWA Foreign policy was the topic for the 11 declared or potential candidates in Des Moines. Midlands
Answers: 1. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. 2. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who's running as a Democrat. 3. Republican Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas. 4. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, former secretary of state. 5. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. 6. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.