Tag Archives: inequality

Reimagining Poverty Part I

In September, the Assets and Education Initiative hosted the first of our speakers series events on Reimagining Poverty.

The events ask the question: Is there an American Dream for you? and raise issues related to the declining economic and social mobility in the United States today and the decreasing likelihood that the paths of opportunity that worked for past generations will work for young people in the future.

That’s part of the reason that I’ve been thinking so much about the American Dream: for my kids, for those disadvantaged, for our shared future.

The first event featured Mark Rank as the keynote. Dr. Rank was a professor of mine in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, when I was in graduate school, so it was a real treat to drive him from the airport, talking about policy and poverty and social change (and, I promise, a little about Sporting KC and my kids and some non-intellectual topics, too–I am a decent host!).

Mark has a new book coming out soon, Chasing the American Dream: Understanding what shapes our fortunes, but his previous books about poverty and welfare were the main sources of his comments in September.

His research has exposed the extent to which poverty is mainstream–commonplace–even, and what that says about the predictable failures of our institutions and the degree to which poverty is an avoidable hazard of growing up in today’s America.

This, of course, is not to say that some don’t bear a greater risk of poverty than others; indeed, the story of poverty in the U.S. is largely one of entrenched patterns of relative disadvantage, and the narratives of the few who beat the odds don’t mean that injustice is not a problem.

And we must lay bare our collective myth of social mobility to harden the public outcry and give us a real chance at fundamental reforms.

But the reality of inequity is not at all at odds with Rank’s emphasis on widespread poverty risk; in fact, helping people to understand their own likelihood of poverty may help to galvanize greater support for the policy changes that will help those disadvantaged the most.

Because it’s failure of the same institutions that contribute to this economic insecurity: sporadic and fleeting, in the lives of some; inescapable for others.

Until we understand poverty as very clearly a result of policy structures, resulting from both intentional choices and less-than-benign neglect, we will continue to incorrectly locate culpability for poverty within individuals.

In so doing, we will deprive those sentenced to generational poverty of a meaningful chance to leave it. And we will make it likely that we, ourselves, confront the cruelty of poverty at some predictable point in our lives.

The overflow crowd in the room for Dr. Rank’s talk and the panel discussion that followed gives me some hope, though, that people are ready to reimagine our understanding of poverty. And that that might hold the key to reducing it.

You can watch the recording of the event, read media coverage, and check out upcoming events in the series here. We will issue a report tying the speakers series together this summer, and we hope that the conversations help to spark greater emphasis on fighting poverty and a different frame through which to view what poverty is doing to Americans, and to our vision of America.

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Equal doesn’t always mean equal.

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One of my favorite things about my kids–and I truly think mine are better about this than most–is their intuitive understanding of what each needs, and their recognition that Mommy’s job is to try to do that, instead of making sure that everyone gets exactly the same.

This does not apply to Sprite or ice cream, it must be said.

But, when it comes to the most precious commodity in our house, Mommy’s time, they are very gracious about how a sibling might need more, or different, attention from Mommy at a particular time.

They see this as fair.

Because ‘equal’ doesn’t always have to mean the same.

And, sometimes, the same wouldn’t be equal at all.

That means that no one really bats an eye when Ben gets to go to Wendy’s with just Mom a couple of times a month. They know that my sensitive and quieter youngest son needs that 1:1 time, and that that is a comforting place for him to connect with me.

The twins have long understood that Sam will get to go places and do things they don’t, not just because he’s older, but because he is interested in things that they just are not. And that Evie needs extra help, as the youngest, and also extra forgiveness, as she learns.

If only our public policy structures got this as well.

I think about my kids every time I hear someone complaining about how people get XYZ public benefit. I want to say, ‘but you don’t really want that, do you? I mean, you don’t want to be in their shoes, so that you could get it. Do you?’

My kids will be ineligible for means-tested financial aid because we make too much money.

And the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they will be at a distinct advantage precisely because they come to post-secondary education equipped with these resources.

There are other examples–Affirmative Action, certainly, but also provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other accommodations for those with disabilities.

When we reduce ‘equality’ to a base understanding of sheer numerical or even face-valid ‘identicality’, we miss the far more important question about whether a given policy or program is delivering to each an equal measure of opportunity, an equal chance at getting his/her needs met.

What my kids are essentially saying, with actions that speak much more clearly than I can here, is this: Why would I begrudge someone else the assistance they need, just because I don’t get it, even if I wouldn’t wish to need it, if I am getting what I need?

Exactly.

I know it sounds simplistic, but I can’t help but think that, if we weren’t so concerned with what others are getting, and with these false metrics of what ‘equal’ should look like, we would have a better chance at building a policy system that can deliver what we each need.

Even if that doesn’t seem ‘equal’.

Ask my kids.

Inequality is ridiculous. Kids know this.

The starting point, I believe, in reducing economic and social inequality in the United States–indeed, around the world–is ceasing to accept it.

And that requires recognizing its true, human-created nature.

Joseph Stiglitz emphasizes in The Price of Inequality that our divides are far from inevitable. Instead, they are the predictable consequence of the failure of the systems we have put in place, and our failure to fix them when they deliver outcomes like what we see before us.

Evidence from nations that have reversed their inequality and are moving in the right direction–Stiglitz cites Brazil–and from those that deliberately chose a path of greater equity–most of Europe, recent retrenchment notwithstanding, affirms this truth:

It doesn’t have to be like this.

And, here, again, my kids’ instinctual reaction should be a lesson for us.

They know what we have lulled ourselves into forgetting.

It is completely ridiculous that some have so little in a land of so much.

They find it absolutely bizarre, for example, that some people are homeless when there are empty houses that banks are trying to get rid of. Forget rules about foreclosure and the principle of the profit motive. To them, people needing house plus house needing people equals problem solved.

They are astounded that there is a pay gap for men and women who do the same job. They say–and they are right–that that doesn’t make any sense.

They don’t understand why you get paid so much more money to run a company, usually, than to teach school, when, as Sam astutely observes, “Being my teacher seems like it’s a pretty hard job.”

They don’t understand why we don’t create systems that end poverty, if we could. They don’t know why some people are worse off than they used to be, while others are making much more. They don’t know why some people are allowed to keep so much–Sam read, somewhere, that the 6 heirs of Wal-Mart have the same wealth as the bottom 30% of the population (yes, I know, he’s an unusual 7-year-old), and the kids all thought he was making that up.

It’s as though, with the adult acceptance of the world as it is peeled away, they can see what we should not ignore:

It is really, really strange how we tolerate a system with so many clear losers.

They remind us how we look, living in this madness as though everything was normal.

And they should inspire us to do better.

Inequality, fairness, and governing like my kids

I just finished reading Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality.

A little light holiday reading, you know.

And so I’ve been thinking, even more than usual, about inequality: what causes it, how it’s manifest, why it matters.

And I’ve also been thinking about my kids, because, well, they are fairly obsessed with fairness.

So this week, I have three posts about Stiglitz’s book, but also about inequality in the U.S. today, through the eyes of my favorite philosophers.

I think they have quite a bit to teach us about equality. I’d love to hear what you think, even if you have the liability of being well older than 7.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #1: If you want people to be pro-fairness, distance matters.

My kids are infinitely more concerned with justice for those who are not strangers. It’s almost like, sometimes, those they don’t know don’t completely exist; certainly, they are not of nearly as great import as those they consider ‘friends’. Another book I read recently, So Rich, So Poor, makes the point that current U.S. policies are ‘adding bricks to the wall of separation’, and we need to care about this. It matters that inequality today results in rich and poor children going to different schools, rich and poor families living in different communities, rich and poor Americans interfacing with different health care systems and transportation systems and food systems. Watch what happens when my 5-year-olds hear about something they perceive as unfair happening to a friend’s sister or a kid on their soccer team, and you’ll see why, if we want people to support redistribution, we need to actively create fewer strangers.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #2: Inequality is worth getting super mad about. Super mad.

Stiglitz asks why the response to the gap between the American Dream and reality isn’t outright revolt. And I think that’s a really good question. Other nations, and ours in other times, have seen much more pushback against policies that intensify inequality. Some cultural and political systems create a space for much greater unrest, even in the face of perceived lesser slights. My kids get this. They know that the only appropriate reaction when you have been truly, justifiably wronged, is to completely lose it. The world needs to feel pain for what they are doing to you. And nothing changes without people getting uncomfortable.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #3: The source of inequality is at the top.

My kids waste very little time messing around with the little players in an unfair situation. They know that Mom is the ultimate referee and arbiter of justice, so they go straight to the top for redress of their grievances. We spend far too much energy, I think, examining symptoms or corollaries of injustice, instead of looking at root causes. And there is a high price for this misdirected emphasis, since we cannot expect the ‘architects of inequality’ to rewire a system that’s working for them, without pressure to do so. When something unfair is happening, we need to put pressure–real pressure–on those with the power to do something about it. And that’s only me when what’s at stake is who got how much Halloween candy in her lunch.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #4: Inequality hurts.

The whole “what does it matter how much others have, if you have enough?” argument absolutely DOES NOT work on my kids. They are completely, even physically, incapable of enjoying their ice cream if their brother got more. Their souls are wounded and they cannot deal. And, it turns out, we’re all like that. Inequality takes a real toll on our psychological well-being, even absent absolute deprivation. It messes with our minds and distorts our values. We can’t get over it, when we have so much less. And we may even be harmed when we’re the ones who came out ahead, because inequality is associated with insecurity, even for today’s winners. It’s hard to enjoy your ice cream when someone’s looking over your shoulder.


I have one more kids’ inequality lesson for tomorrow, but it needs its own full treatment. What other inequality insights can you share–kid-generated or otherwise?

Whither the American Dream? Not on our watch.

It is, of course, not enough just to catalog the way that U.S. social and economic policies are imperiling the American dream.

We have to stop it.

That will, of course, take a movement, since, on our own, we tend to respond to the confrontation of so much that’s wrong with a disengagement, what Ernie Cortes calls the axiom that “powerlessness also corrupts” (p. xviii).

But, together, we could have what Smith calls an ‘army of volunteers prepared to battle for the common cause of reclaiming the American Dream” (p. 425).

That will take changes to the way the system works, maybe with mandatory voting, so that elected officials would know with some certainty that they would face the wrath of the entire electorate if they fail to vote the interests of most Americans (p. 417), and certainly with campaign finance reform. We likely need to rethink the role of political parties (p. 414), and there is certainly evidence that Senate rules have outlived their usefulness (p. 322). There is evidence that members of Congress tune out the opinions of average Americans when voting on legislation, especially when powerful financial interests get engaged (p. 135). But they wouldn’t–they couldn’t–if we change the terms of engagement.

Shifting these terms of engagement could result in real changes in the distributional policies we pursue, including reductions in military spending so that we can reinvest in U.S. infrastructure and opportunity, what then-candidate Obama described as “fighting to put the American Dream within reach for every American…for what folks in this state have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students” (p. 373). But we’re not. Yet. And that has to change. Dwight Eisenhower knew that “to amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another” (p. 353). Another case of a Kansan who got it right.

And we need new tax policies. Really. Our tax policies are the opposite of what Americans really want, what some economists consider “the most political law in the world” (p. 106). We need new estate tax policies, to start, and to eliminate the earnings cap on Social Security. Achieving some victories like that could, perhaps, get more Americans to see how much tax policies matter, to build momentum for even bigger lifts.

Truly, there’s so much that needs to be fixed that you can sort of take your pick about where we start, in terms of substantive policy changes.

What is even more important is the strategy. That’s why, when I heard this piece on NPR during an early morning workout, I was struck by the quote at the very end.

It’s going to take a revolution.

But isn’t a dream worth fighting for?

Of Dreams, and Redeeming Them

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Today, obviously, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There are a lot of things I thought about writing about on this day–my personal struggle with how little connection there is between the man and this day, for so many; my efforts to raise my children in the shadow of that dream (not ‘his’ dream, because it must be ours); reflections on these 50 years since the March on Washington…

But I settled on another dream, and what threatens it, and how quickly we like to forget that Dr. King spoke of not just a dream of racial equality but of economic opportunity, prosperity for all, and an end to the crushing poverty that, while certainly not equally distributed, harms all it touches.

I recently read Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, a book so discouraging, really, that I had to make myself finish it, even though it’s compelling and exhaustive and extremely well-written.

It’s a book that I hated to explain to my Sam, when he read the title and asked what it meant.

But we can’t avert our eyes, here. The evidence is clear that we are witnessing a centralization of power and an inequality of resources not unprecedented–the current ‘wage premium’ for those with at least a Bachelor’s degree mirrors the divide of the 1920s, so there is certainly historical precedent–but undeniably damaging.

The American Dream is eroding, unraveling, not just for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, but, increasingly, for all but those at the top.

Regular readers will recognize that a lot of my writing these days (and more to come) has revolved around these themes: student loans and the decreasing democracy of financial aid, the need for new economic policies and approaches to restore the position of the middle class, the dangerous risk shifts that imperil economic security. I’ve been increasingly obsessed, I guess, with these social, political, and economic trends, and that spills over into what I share here.

Today’s post, then, is my effort to pull together some of the insights from Smith’s book that, in light of Dr. King’s exhortations, I see as most urgent. Tomorrow, I hope to spark some conversation about what it will take, in today’s context, to really build a movement to redeem the full vision Dr. King so presciently laid out, not just of children of different races sitting together, but of an economy that delivers dignity and hope and comfort…an American dream of real equality of opportunity, the way we have never–not in 1963 or 2014 or 1776–known.

  • There is no guarantee this ends well: We’re not just going through a tough economic cycle. We’re not just experiencing a rough patch in terms of political partisanship. As a quote cited in the prologue of the book spells out, “Civilizations die of disenchantment. If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart” (p. xi, attributed to John W. Gardner). And that’s where we are, right? My kids’ hero, Abraham Lincoln, knew that we couldn’t survive a divided nation, and we are divided today, not just ‘red/blue’ state, but rich and poor, ‘the United States works’ v. ‘there is no American dream for me’. This may not just be a phase. It may be the beginning of the end. If there is anything that should be keeping us all up at night, it is this: our nation is not destined to succeed. If we want it to, we have to make it happen.
  • It’s getting worse: I could cite statistics from virtually any page of Smith’s book that would underscore this point (which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable), but here’s one that really gets me: Between 2002-2007, the top 1% reaped 2/3 of the nation’s entire economic gains. In 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery, the top 1% captured 93% of the nation’s gains. That’s really inconceivable, in terms of the scale of the devastation it is wreaking on people’s lives, and also on people’s belief in this whole political experiment of our society.
  • These economic trends are not ‘natural’: Smith relies heavily on Germany’s experience to highlight the very different outcomes that result from different policy choices. Germany has seen a much lower unemployment rate during the recession, a much less significant loss in its manufacturing industries, and a much small growth in inequality…not because they have been subject to radically different economic cycles or forces, but because they have chosen different paths, that come with different consequences. Lest some conclude that there’s something in German ‘culture’ (or maybe the water?) that leads to greater equality, Smith also highlights outcomes from the ‘Great Compression’, a period of relative classlessness in U.S. history (post-war), when a rising tide really did lift all boats. And then he traces the policy choices that unraveled that structure.
  • We’re not handling the risk shift well: One of the points that Smith makes well is how inferior the ‘new safety net’ (largely composed of individual approaches that shift responsibility onto consumers, like 401(k)s) are, in providing for Americans’ well-being. We have to stop pretending that unequal outcomes are, somehow, equal–that it doesn’t matter how people finance college, if they just go, or that incentives to save for your own retirement are the same as being assured them. The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, people, and we have to stop pretending. “The burden shift has turned the traditional definition of the American Dream ‘on its ear'” (p. 89).
  • Coalitions have their limits: Social workers like to think that we can make common cause with anyone. And, indeed, we have an ethical obligation not to unduly demonize even our most ardent political opponents. But, given the increasing evidence that, today, the fates of ‘Main Street’ and Wall Street diverge, we can’t build tents so big that we’re missing the ways in which our supposed allies are working against us, or at least perpetuating systems that are.
  • We need to tell honest stories about ourselves: The American dream can’t be so vague and so distorted that it loses all meaning. But, today, that’s usually how we talk about it, because it lets us pretend that it’s still really functioning. Instead, “the view that American is the land of opportunity doesn’t entirely square with the facts” (p. 65, attributed to Isabel v. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution). Young people in the ‘old Europe’ economies of Norway, France, Germany, and Denmark, among others, have a better chance of moving up than those in the U.S. That’s not who we like to think we are.

We don’t do a great job, today, acknowledging how far we fall short of the Dream of racial integration and equality, but I would argue that we are more willing to acknowledge that failing, at least in that we identify that as a dream to which we need to continue to aspire, unlike a vision of economic equality, which we largely try to fool ourselves into thinking is just a part of our political ‘DNA’.

In other words, because we pretend that we’ve ‘got this’, when it comes to economic opportunity and equality, we don’t even really know where the goalposts are, in order to recognize how much farther we have to go.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we must start by claiming all of our dreams.

So that we can set out to live them.

Inequality.is

There is little in this world that brings me more joy than seeing nonprofit advocates really hit one out of the park.

Kids who go to bed right on time, maybe; fresh peaches off the tree; my allium when they bloom in spring.

But, really, extraordinarily successful advocacy campaigns are near the top of the list, especially when they also cultivate grassroots engagement and address critical social issues.

At the site Inequality.is, the Economic Policy Institute unveils economic inequality, as real, personal, expensive, created, and fixable.

It’s all interactive, accessible, and compelling.

What’s not to love about Robert Reich making the history of recent economic policy make sense to laypeople, in cartoon form?

But it’s not just a gimmick; policy prescriptions are woven throughout, and the real experiences of those on the losing end of the U.S. economy feature prominently.

And it matters, urgently and deeply, because inequality is a threat to our economic foundation, our societal fabric, and our democracy.

The site is super well-done, not only a resource for those seeking to better understand economic inequality, but also those wanting a tutorial on how to make their issue more salient, and how to use technology to draw others in.

Check it out.