Tag Archives: inequality

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


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.


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.

Not mine alone

This Labor Day, I’m thinking about how easy it is to take credit for things we didn’t secure by ourselves.

To claim our employment successes, for example, when they come in significant measure because of educational advantages or accumulated privileges.

To pride ourselves on our initiative or hard work when–present though those attributes may be–there is ample evidence around the world that some economies reward them very differently, and that status still matters in determining how much our efforts will yield.

And I’m thinking about, in my own life, a perhaps trivial but, to me, still poignant example of this, nearly every day.

I have lost quite a bit of weight over the past few months, now that I’m done having babies. And often, especially when I haven’t seen people in awhile, they will remark about it. It’s usually along the lines of pointing out that I must be working hard, and, not infrequently, even making jabs at those who are overweight, something about “if you can find time to work out, so can they!”

And, to me, thinking about that invisible backpack of privilege that we carry around, that’s not a compliment.

It’s a teachable moment.

Because the truth is that our food system and our gender relations and our economy and our built environment and, indeed, our entire society, are wired for overweight. My successes in counteracting those currents stem not so much from my superior willpower (or, in all honesty, the fact that the treadmill at 5:15AM is one place where no one will interrupt me) but, again, from the scaffolding that places me at a distinct advantage in the quest to reach a healthy weight: adequate income to purchase more expensive, nutritious food; access to quality childcare so that I can exercise knowing my kids are taken care of; an education that positioned me to secure flexible employment; racial and economic privileges that allow me to purchase a home in a desirable neighborhood with ample access to recreation and physical activity…and so on.

It’s not that I mean to dismiss the influence of the individual. Social workers are PIE for a reason. It’s not all environment.

But when we ignore the power of the structures that shape our opportunities and our outcomes–at work, at home, in politics, even on the bathroom scale–we don’t just give ourselves too much credit.

We deny the contributions, and the sacrifices, and the disadvantages, of those who have gone before and those who struggle around us today.

That five-day work week, those paid sick days, those accommodations for disabilities, my pounds lost…all are shared victories.

Not ours alone.

Studies in translation

One of my new projects is a bit of a different approach for me, more directly bridging my pseudo-academic pursuits and my applied advocacy practice.

I am working with the Assets in Education Initiative, an effort of the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, to produce some materials and provide some advising, towards their aim of making their academic research ‘resonate’ more in the policy arena.

I have some thoughts, and some questions, as I approach these challenges, but, mainly, I want to start by pointing out what should, perhaps, be obvious:

It is super awesome that they are doing this.

How often do we academics (including the just pseudo-ones, like me) read academic literature–others’ or our own–and think, “this has profound implications for policy”, without, perhaps, giving much thought to the unlikelihood that any real policymakers or influencers will ever see it?

How often do we look at a policy and smack our fists against our foreheads, because OF COURSE it’s not going to work, given what we have learned about XYZ issue in the past 30 years of research. It’s like the state legislators haven’t even SEEN the research on the short tenures of stay on TANF and the importance of higher education as a work activity.

Because they haven’t.

My own students lament the fact that, having been trained to look to peer-reviewed literature for trustworthy information about best practices, connections between social problems and interventions (that can form the backdrop of a theory of change), and credible support for the changes they want to pursue…they then find, post-graduation, that they can’t even afford access to the journals on which we tell them to rely.

So I’m struck by the insight, and the humility, with which my new colleagues at AEDI are approaching this ‘next step’ in their work. They recognize that we have learned enough, in the past two decades, to know that helping low-income households accumulate assets can have significant impact on their behavior and even their thinking. They have been part of demonstrating the potential of these interventions through demonstration projects and numerous rigorous research efforts.

The next step:

Leveraging that base of knowledge, and the passions of those who have seen lives transformed through this asset-based approach to fighting poverty and reducing economic inequality, to win policy changes that can take these ideas to scale.

I hope this is just the first I’ve seen of a trend in academic researchers thinking hard about how to translate their ideas for policymakers, media consumption, and advocate empowerment. And, not just thinking about it, but dedicating resources, within their research budgets, to bridge that gap.

Some of the items we’ll undertake are already spelled out, but I am crowdsourcing this a bit, too, and I’d love to hear from those of you on the advocacy side–what do you wish you had, in order to carry academic studies that you find promising to a policymaker audience? And those who are researchers–where are your greatest challenges, in terms of figuring out ‘hooks’ to make your knowledge accessible by those in the policymaking arena?

Thank you, in advance, for your help in this decoding.

There’s no Rosetta Stone for this kind of translation for policy impact.

Is social work an anachronistic profession?

In this final post taken from the ideas of The Spirit Level, I’ve been thinking about the evidence from past societies about greater equality, and about how social work values are often in tension, if not outright conflict, with societal ones, and, I guess, about what that says about our profession, and where we fit.

See, if societies grow progressively (no pun intended) less egalitarian as they develop, and if social work’s collective beliefs about the distribution of resources more closely mirror those of the past than today, then what’s the future for our profession? And, of course, for society too?

Evidence suggests that hunter/gatherer societies were more cooperative and less hierarchical because of a clearer sense of interdependence; as natural resources are depleted, will we regain an understanding of just how much we need each other? Will social work values, then, that are obviously more well-suited to ‘flatter’ societal power structures, come back in style?

Or are social workers destined to cope within a dominant value structure that doesn’t reflect our understanding about the way that wealth should be distributed or, perhaps more importantly, about the negative consequences of tremendous inequality?

If that’s the case, then how will we, as social workers, respond? Will we cave to societal norms that devalue redistribution? Will we seek status in order to thrive within that power dynamic, rather than resisting it? Will we spend increasing professional energy dealing with the symptoms of inequality?

Or will we rise to the challenge of turning the tide?

Does it matter, I guess, if we’re ‘out of touch’, if we are true to our value code? Do we, in fact, gain some maneuvering room if we’re operating a bit outside the system? Is there some advantage in being seen, in fact, as distinct, because it helps us to attract social workers who are not only clear about the mandates of the profession with which they are affiliating, but also obviously comfortable with the idea of standing apart?

Will history come around to us, again?

Will we concede?

Or are we content to be anachronistic, since we believe it to be right?

Why shouldn’t he want to be a tow-truck driver?

My oldest son wants to be either an archaeologist or a tow-truck driver.

And when he gives that answer to the ubiquitous questioning of well-meaning adults, the response is almost always the same.

They nod when he says ‘archaeologist’ and laugh a bit when he talks about driving a tow truck.

It has always bothered me, the way that I cringe whenever someone jokes to a child about studying hard so that he/she won’t end up sacking groceries, or some other purportedly inferior occupation.

Because, really, who would you rather have around in a crisis–someone who can pull you out of a ditch, or someone who digs for fossils? I mean to say, what makes the former a perfectly respectable job and the latter obviously not, despite the contributions that both make to our overall society?

I don’t want Sam learning the lessons he undoubtedly absorbs from these repeated exchanges, the idea that economic status confers societal legitimacy, and that pursuit of that stature should drive his life plans.

And, so, it was with great parental, as well as policy advocate, interest that I read the part of The Spirit Level that presented evidence that children are more likely to aspire to lower-skilled work in more equal societies, because those jobs are more adequately (and accurately) valued in societies with greater equality.

And, without the stigma that attaches to jobs disdained in our highly unequal economy, kids are free to choose the occupations that seem terrific to their yet-untainted-by-inequality minds.

Like driving a big truck that can carry around big cars.

Setting aside my parental angst, there are policy reasons to care about how the next generation views its work, especially because we’ll always need tow-truck drivers.

With many of the fastest-growing industries those with comparably low wages, we have to confront our ever-increasing demand for occupations that are poorly compensated. Are we content to be a society where those who take care of us are not taken care of? Will some of these most critical jobs, then, continue to be filled by those who couldn’t make it to the truly-valued (although not always as productive) upper echelons?

Or do we want an economy, and a society, where hard work and meaningful contributions are rewarded adequately?

If so, we know how to get there: robust protection of labor laws, strong unions, progressive tax policies to finance a vibrant safety net.

And then we need to stop teaching harmful lessons to children like Sam, especially since we all claim to wish that we had careers that we chose for sheer love of the job, like the way his eyes shine when he sees those strong cranes on the back of a tow truck.

Because you could do a lot worse than to have him come to your aid on the side of the road.

We all could.

Quality of Life, and Building it for my Kids

**I’m still catching up on posts about all of the reading that I did between Thanksgiving and the beginning of February–my most prolific reading period of the entire year, for sure–and slowly going through the pile of sticky notes that I accumulated as I processed what I read, and what it made me think.**

This week, I have three posts related to the really excellent book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. You should totally read the book, which is full of data that turns what we think we know about poverty, and wealth, and well-being, on its head.

But, as usual, this isn’t so much a traditional ‘review’ as it is my reflections on what a particular concept means for me, and, I hope, for us.

Every parent wants a good quality of life for her/his children, right? I mean, I know not just for my neighbors–here in this pretty affluent suburb–but also for the immigrant parents with whom I have the honor to work, it’s the hope that the future holds something promising, and secure, and healthy for one’s children that motivates much of what we do.

But thinking about what the evidence says about real quality of life, and about how to get it, must provoke a reconsideration of our pursuits. Because, increasingly, we know that having more doesn’t mean having it better.

In the United States, especially for those not in the lowest income tiers, we’re reading the limit of what increasing living standards can offer us, in terms of health and life expectancy and all-around wellness.

In fact, we know that, inequality matters a lot in determining how healthy people are, how much they learn, even how happy they feel, even controlling for income.

It matters even more than we want to admit, because acknowledging how important equality is in shaping our own well-being means that we have to spend more collective energy (and public resources) figuring out wealth distribution instead of trying to get as much as we can for ourselves, or even just adding to the total aggregate.

Mental illness rates are higher in societies with more inequality, with even health among higher-income populations affected by overall levels of inequality.

It’s not enough to have ‘enough’ for yourself.

You’re harmed, in some real, tangible ways, as well as some more subtle psychological ones, by the existence of others who have far less than enough.

And less than you.

We know that from data, but we know it from our lived and practice experience too, right?

I see the anxiety around me, from parents who put their 5-year-olds in tons of activities because they want to produce ‘well-rounded scholars’ (yes, they use that phrase) to neighbors who reluctantly acknowledge that they’re in deep debt because of out-of-control spending to couples whose marriages fall apart because of the strain of overwork. I see a harsh side of inequality in the smugness of those who accept mediocrity from our public school system, secure in the knowledge that it’s still better than what other kids get.

It’s not ‘cultural’, this stress and malaise and vindictiveness.

It’s born of the proximity of desperation, and the knowledge that we are but a few ‘failures’ away from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, which seem like such a long way down. It’s exposed by the tattered safety net and the panicking realization that there’s very little to catch us if, or when, we fall.

It’s a special kind of insecurity that can only be mitigated by building a society where everyone has enough, because we can never hoard enough for ourselves to feel safe.

And that gets me to thinking about our kids, and to facing the awareness that I cannot protect them, as long as I’m only trying to protect them.

Because I want BETTER for my kids, not better like iPads for my 3-year-olds but better like believing that people take care of each other when it’s needed, that belonging to a society comes with certain guarantees, and that no one should have too much…or too little.