“This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.” – Theodore Roosevelt
The old American dream is giving way to a new American dream, a dream that can improve our quality of life, promote social justice, and protect the environment. In this three-part series, I’ll try my best to first articulate where we are now, and then offer a vision of a society that pursues not just “more,” but more of what matters – and less of what doesn’t. I invite you, our reader, to participate in a valuable dialog that will, at least in some small part, help shape a new American dream.
Many of you may be wondering what on earth this has to do with simple living. You may be unaware or in denial about the gravity of the situation. Perhaps you are so tired that you can’t even find the energy to think about all this. You may think that whatever is wrong is all beyond your control. I’d like you to know that there is hope, and that another world is possible. In February of this year, the Seventh Annual Social Justice Symposium was held at the School of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley. One of the workshops was titled “Another World Is Possible.” Here is an excerpt from the workshop description:
“We need a system that promotes our collective good, our communities’ health, equality, social justice, and humility rather than individualism, greed, pride, gluttony, and vanity. A panel of presenters from different perspectives will help us envision a system that produces to meet needs rather than to make profits.”
Here is a birds’-eye view of how I see things fitting together:
Ready? Let’s go!
What is the relationship between economic inequality and social inequality?
“Social inequality is different from economic inequality, though the two are linked. Social inequality refers to disparities in the distribution of economic assets and income, while economic inequality is caused by the unequal accumulation of wealth; social inequality exists because the lack of wealth in certain areas prohibits these people from obtaining the same housing, health care, etc. as the wealthy, in societies where access to these social goods depends on wealth.” – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Let’s examine specific social domains affected by economic inequality.
Children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially. Why is this?
Sean F. Reardon, a professor of education and sociology at Stanford, wrote a Times Opinion page titled “No Rich Child Left Behind.” The focus of the article is early-childhood education:
At the other end of the academic spectrum, there is growing inequality in college attendance. Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree has increased by 18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students has grown by only 4 points.Thomas Kane, an economist and Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, links this inequality in college attendance to rising costs of higher education and cuts in financial aid.
Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign is dedicated to ending childhood hunger in America. Here are a few statistics from their website:
The web page also details what’s at stake:
Feeding America is another leading domestic hunger-relief charity. If you take a look at their website, you quickly learn that poverty and hunger affects many segments of our society:
“The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” – Adam Smith, Scottish political economist (1723-1790)
TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) is an income supplementation program for working parents, and it was “based on the sunny assumption that there would always be plenty of jobs for those enterprising enough to get them.” Some recipients have taken to calling TANF “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” When you read the case of Kristen and Joe Parente, you will understand why.
Ehrenreich tells us that, “when you leave the relative safety of the middle class, you might as well have given up your citizenship and taken residence in a hostile nation.” The criminalization of poverty has actually intensified as the weakened economy generates ever more poverty. A recent study from the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness finds that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with the harassment of the poor for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering, or carrying an open container.
Some examples that defy of all reason and compassion:
For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization:
Ehrenreich describes “the mad cycle of poverty and punishment.” “In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, then penalize people for falling into debt. The experience of the poor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.”
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in a speech to the Medical Committee for Human Rights, 1966.
A healthcare system should provide “care that does not vary in quality because of personal characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, geographic location, and socioeconomic status”. – the Institute of Medicine report “Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century” published in 2001
There is strong empirical evidence that economic inequality continues to be inextricably linked to health disparities within our country. Watch these two short YouTube videos.
Larry Adelman, creator of the documentary “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” explains the famous “Whitehall study,” the first major examination of class-based health inequality. Adelman explains that the additional stress posed by low incomes and resulting instability can actually wear down people’s organs.
Both job security and job satisfaction have decreased for low-wage workers compared with their higher-paid counterparts. One obvious reason is just how low their wages are. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which translates to $15,080 for a full-time, year-round worker. For decades economists and bankers have had a guideline allowing for up to approximately 30% of income to be used for housing. A little math applied here would show that 40 hrs./wk @ $7.25/hr. is around $300/week or about $1200/month. If our housing allowance is no more than one-third of that, then rent should be at something in the vicinity of $400/month. Probably not the case in your town! It therefore comes as no surprise that many working people are homeless; 30% of homeless people are employed on a full-time or part-time basis!
But it’s not just the low-wage earner that is losing in today’s economy. (Only the top 1% are winning.)
On June 11 of this year, The White House released a chart illustrating the “Great Gatsby Curve.” The chart illustrates the relationship between income inequality and economic mobility.
When Alan Krueger, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, introduced this concept last year, he said “The fortunes of one’s parents seem to matter increasingly in American society.” Because of a rise in income inequality over the past 25 years, the income advantages and disadvantages that parents pass on to their children is expected to rise by about 25 percent over the next generation. (You may recall that one of the themes of The Great Gatsby revolves around the consequences of extreme wealth.)
“What we need are critical lovers of America – patriots who express their faith in their country by working to improve it.” – Hubert H. Humphrey
We have examined some of the social injustices caused by the unequal distribution of wealth in America. Let us, as Humphrey suggests, express our faith in America by working to improve it.
“America is a tune. It must be sung together.” – Gerald Stanley Lee, Crowds
How can we change our future? The final installment in this series will offer some solutions to the various challenges we face as a nation.