“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.
Another World Is Possible
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:
- Our country is suffering a severe case of economic inequality, the likes of which we have never seen before. This was the topic covered in Part I of this series: A New American Dream: Part I .
- This economic inequality is the primary reason for all sorts of social injustice issues all around us. The danger is that current economic divisions have set in motion a self-perpetuating cycle of social disadvantage. Unless we do something to alter the course of this self-propelling cycle, things can only get worse. This is the topic I am covering here in Part II.
- Voluntary simplicity (a.k.a. simple living) can and should be one of the solutions. Notice that I do not say the whole solution, but certainly a major part. Part III will examine these solutions.
Ready? Let’s go!
Social Implications of Rising Economic Inequality
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.
Access to Quality Education
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:
- [There is a growing perception that] early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.
- Children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school.
- The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.
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.
Poverty and Hunger
Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign is dedicated to ending childhood hunger in America. Here are a few statistics from their website:
- One in five children (16 million) struggles with hunger.
- 22% of all kids under the age of 18 live in poverty.
- Nearly half of all people who use SNAP (food stamps) are kids.
The web page also details what’s at stake:
- That child who doesn’t have enough to eat isn’t going to do as well in school.
- And is likely to get sick more often.
- She’s less likely to graduate from high school and go on to college, which will have a negative impact on her economic future.
- If this happens, then 20 years from now, she’s much less likely to be able to earn enough to feed her family.
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:
- For 1 in 6 people in the United States, hunger is a reality. Many people believe that the problems associated with hunger are confined to small pockets of society, certain areas of the country, or certain neighborhoods; but the reality is much different.
- Right now, millions of Americans are struggling with hunger. These are often hard-working adults, children and seniors who simply cannot make ends meet and are forced to go without food for several meals, or even days.
Abuse of Needy Families In America
“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:
- Al Szekeley is a disabled Vietnam vet who was living in a shelter in Washington, D.C., until 2008, when he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, a homeless advocate (and himself a shelter resident). “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?” His crime? He had an outstanding warrant for “criminal trespassing,” as sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law.
- A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, leading to the arrests of several middle-aged white vegans.
- Phoenix, Arizona, has been using zoning laws to stop a local church from serving breakfast to homeless people.
For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization:
- Debt. Suppose one of your creditors has a court summons issued for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another, such as that your address has changed and you never received it. Okay, now you’re in “contempt of the court.” Or suppose you miss a payment and your car insurance lapses, and then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight. Now, depending on the state, you may have your car impounded and/or face a steep fine – again, exposing you to a possible court summons.
- Have the wrong color skin. Whole communities are effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor. Flick a cigarette and you’re “littering”; wear the wrong color tee-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance.
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.)
Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.
The Great Gatsby Curve
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.
Stay Tuned for Part III
“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.