By Rana Foroohar
January 6, 2015

See correction below.

If unemployment and slow growth were the central economic issues of the last presidential election cycle, wage stagnation and inequality are shaping up to be the focal point of 2016. The U.S. is now solidly in recovery, posting 5 % GDP growth in the third quarter of last year. But growth isn’t necessarily the same as shared prosperity. Inflation-adjusted middle class incomes have actually gone down for the last decade, something even the most rabid free market advocates won’t quarrel with statistically. And working class wages have been stagnant for much longer than that. (On balance, men with only high school degrees haven’t gotten a raise since 1968.) In an economy made up of 70 % consumer spending, that’s obviously an economic problem: no spending equals no business investment equals no jobs equals no spending…you get the picture. But inequality is increasingly taking on social and cultural dimensions, evident in everything from the debate over immigration to the killings that have rocked Ferguson and New York.

Put simply, chronically flat wages are no longer just about the lifestyle divide between the 1 % and everyone else. They’ve become an issue of social justice, democracy, and stability.

The question is, who has an answer to the problem? Liberals will be taking a first crack at it this Wednesday (Jan. 7) at the AFL-CIO-sponsored summit on Raising Wages. As Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who’ll be giving the keynote address, told me in an exclusive interview in advance of the summit, “Things are getting better, yes, but only for some. Families are working harder, but not doing better. And they feel the game is rigged against them–and guess what–it is!”

In her speech, Warren will be talking through numbers from a database compiled by French academic Thomas Piketty (author of the best-selling Capital in the 21st Century) showing that while 90 % of the workers in the US shared 70 % of all new income between the 1930s and 1970s, things started to change in the 1980s, with the 90 % capturing essentially zero percent of all new income since then.

Funny enough, that’s around that time that the laissez faire economic policies advocated by President Reagan, and later, President Clinton’s administration, took off. Former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin was the one who lobbied Clinton to roll back the Depression-era Glass-Steagall banking regulation that many (like Warren) believe was a key factor in the financial crisis (which, in and of itself, greatly exacerbated inequality, particularly for African American and Latino families). He and other Clinton advisors like Larry Summers also crafted changes in tax policy that allowed for the growth of stock options as the main form of corporate compensation, a trend that Piketty, Nobel laureate and former Clinton advisor Joseph Stiglitz and many other economists believe has been a reason for growing inequality. I asked Warren if she blamed such Rubinesque policies for our current wage stagnation problem. “I’d lay it right at the feet of trickle down economics, yes. We’ve tried that experiment for 35 years and it hasn’t worked.”

Which will be an interesting challenge for Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner for 2016, and those in her orbit to overcome. Neera Tanden, the policy director for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, now head of the left wing think tank Center for American Progress, will also be speaking at the AFL-CIO summit and, next week, CAP will be debuting a brand new report on what can be done about wage stagnation. The report was spearheaded by none other than Larry Summers. When I mention to Tanden that many people might not associate Summers with “inclusive growth,” she insists that the document is “quite progressive” and that “he’s been right there with it.” This echoes what I’ve heard from other economic insiders about Summers shift away from his historic (some might say infamous) work in financial alchemy and toward more populist concerns like worker wages.

If this conversion has in fact taken place it could be described as either Biblical, or, given current public sentiment around Wall Street, opportunistic. CAP’s report will focus on what the US can learn from other developed countries like Australia, Canada, and Sweden, which have managed to keep worker wages relatively high in the face of globalization and technological disruption. It’s worth noting that they also have much more sensibly managed financial systems than the US.

One thing that all the VIP summit participants, including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, seem to agree on: the US is the outlier in developed economies in viewing workers as “costs” rather than “assets to be invested,” as Trumka puts it. It’s a philosophy that underscores America’s focus on the rights and profits of investors to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. It’s a mythology that will be under fire in 2016, as workers, business people, and politicians alike are beginning to question the viability of a system that encourages inequality-bolstering share buybacks rather than real economy investment, and a chase for quarterly profits over what’s best for the economy–and society—at large. On that note, Trumka will be announcing some big policy steps to put the wage issue front and center in the 2016 election conversation. “We want to establish raising wages as the key, unifying progressive value,” he says. “We want wages to be what ties all the pieces of economic and social justice together.” Sounds like a rallying cry to me.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

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