The above image: “Depicting a topic as expansive as inequality in a single frame is a challenge, especially since unequal experiences are often lived adjacently, but separately. Photographer Johnny Miller has successfully achieved a method of visualizing inequality—by using a drone to spotlight from above how rich and poor can inhabit spaces that are right next to each other, but so different.”
Inequality occurs when there is a disproportionate distribution of resources, wealth, or legal status in a society. When our access to resources or wealth are insufficient to meet our needs we enter a state called poverty, a lack of material wealth. Without wealth we also lack access to justice because we can’t afford to hire legal representation when we need it. The widespread existence of inequality, poverty, and injustice in our society disproves the American constitution, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Even if we were to change the language to “all persons are created equal” we still have to acknowledge that America is far from equal.
This month we celebrate the signing of the US Constitution on September 17, 1787. ” Only thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates to the convention actually signed the new document, with many of those who refused to sign objecting to the lack of a bill of rights. At least one delegate refused to sign because the Constitution codified and protected slavery and the slave trade.” Two hundred and thirty three years ago a majority of our founding fathers signed a document that would become the guide for our union, laying out ideals of how they believed we should live together. Yet today we see protests and riots by citizens who are angry with the systemic injustice and inequality that still exists within our country. We are witnessing how a pandemic has reduced many families to poverty. Where do we go from here? How do we address systemic inequality that has led to poverty and injustice?
“History doesn’t repeat itself,’’ Mark Twain supposedly observed, “but it often rhymes.” That may explain why the period that Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age” seems so familiar today. That period (roughly 1870-1900) shares much with our present time: economic inequality and technological innovation; conspicuous consumption and philanthropy; monopolistic power and populist rebellion; two presidential elections in which the popular vote loser won (Hayes in 1876 and Harrison in 1888); and change — constant, exhilarating, frightening.”
Most of us have played the popular game Monopoly, where players compete to gain control of all the money and property. Each player starts with the same amount of money from which to buy property and build homes or hotels. Players move around a game board by the a roll of the dice. Thus, there is an element of skill (players must choose when to buy or trade property, when to build houses or hotels) and an element of chance (the roll of the dice). The game ends when one player has successfully ‘monopolized’ (owns) all the money and property.
In the game of Monopoly the playing field is equal, every player starts the game with the same amount of money. Every player has the same opportunity to roll the dice and advance (unless they go to jail). Every player follows the same set of rules. Imagine instead if one person started the game with a hundred times more money than the other players? What if one player was allowed to roll the dice twice in every turn? What if one player always had a get out of jail free card? If the rules were rigged for one player it would be impossible for any other player to win the game. We probably wouldn’t want to play! Strangely many Americans don’t think about the unfair advantage that wealth gives, making it easier for a few to win at the expense of everyone else. We don’t think of income inequality or access to opportunity for advancement as unfair.
In life we do not all start with same amount of money, nor do we all have the same chance to ‘roll the dice’ and advance. CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978 yet the typical worker compensation has risen only 12% during that time. Access to wealth and education are not distributed equally, they are concentrated in the hands of an ever smaller percentage of our population. If you are born into a poor family it is unlikely you will become rich (professional athletes are one of the few exceptions to this). If you are born into a wealthy family it is more likely you will stay wealthy and even continue to build wealth because money and investments can work for you.
A wealthy family can provide many privileges that a poor family cannot; better food and housing, better health care, cleaner neighborhoods, economic stability, and less exposure to crime. Opportunities for advancement, such as going to college or finding a high paying job, are similar to a roll of the dice in Monopoly. Yes, we need to work hard in college and do well once we find a good job, but if you are poor these opportunities are out of your reach. And ‘justice for all’ is meaningless when people cannot afford an attorney and the one provided you free of charge is more interested in plea deals than justice (which means jail time).
Not only does wealth bring us advantages it prevents disadvantages. A family with little or no debt has more opportunity to buy their first home, to move for a better job, or better schools for their children. When disaster or emergencies strike, a family with savings in the bank is more likely to get through without major set backs, more likely to recover with less deprivation or feelings of depression. There are significant differences in mental health between people who live on the edge of poverty and those who have savings that can see them through a downturn.
We all need a safety net when the economy takes a downturn, when someone loses a job or becomes seriously ill. Situational poverty affects both Black and White Americans at one time or another in their life. Few Americans have any savings to fall back on when disaster strikes. “… more than 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will be poor for at least a year. Over the same period, more than half will be poor or nearly poor, with income at 150 percent of the poverty line, or about $27,000 annually for a family of three.” Poverty in the US. is a much larger problem than we think it is, and it’s one that most Americans will face. It’s a situation that many Americans are currently facing due to the pandemic and the shut down of business in America.
“We live in a world of widespread economic fragility, of insecurity, of what some have come to call precarity. “According to one recent survey, about one-in-four Americans have no savings at all. US household economies are fragile, so it often just takes one crisis to push a family over the edge—from just getting by to not getting by at all: an injury that makes it impossible to work, a sudden physical or mental illness, a death in the family, a car breaking down, or even the birth of a new baby. ” All of these can be traumatic economic events for a family with little or no savings and no margin for error—events that families should be able to recover from, with time, but if you have little backup and the next crisis hits, you are broken. Americans can’t necessarily count on the social safety net to be there when we need it. And most of us will need it at some point!
“Don’t fight poverty because you feel sorry for other people; fight poverty because the odds are increasingly high that you and your family will be poor someday, too.”
Think back to the game of Monopoly and ask yourself if you would want to play the game if the rules allowed the same person to always win? Probably not. So why do so many Americans still believe the ‘American Dream’ exists for all of us, that if we work hard we can get ahead in life? How is it part of the American Dream when only the rich are getting ahead (and by extension their offspring), and the majority of children and grandchildren will be poorer than their parents?
We know that income inequality leads to poverty and injustice, so why are we not all clamoring for better wages and less wealth concentration? Why is it only a “progressive” idea that tax policies need to redistribute wealth and prevent its concentration? Perhaps it’s time we all ask how much wealth do we need to secure a good life? And does extreme wealth offer any benefit to society? How much should anyone be allowed to profit from your labor? Does our economic system really reward those who work the hardest or only those with the greatest access to capital?
Income inequality affects us all and the gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us continues to grow. Yet many poor White Americans don’t support policies to redistribute wealth or believe it with benefit them. They have been mislead by politicians into believing such changes will largely benefit Black Americans at the expense of White Americans. In some ways both liberal and conservative politicians make arguments that support this view. Conservatives support policies that continue to give the lion’s share of wealth to the already wealthy, reducing the amount that would go to lower-income Americans. They condemn Liberal policies that focus on income policies (e.g., welfare, food stamps, cash assistance, etc.) that “grow” government. Democrats support redistribution policies that emphasize merit, providing most families with just enough income to survive but not to thrive. Rarely does either political party enter into debates on or build coalitions for building wealth in all families, making it possible for every family to live a good life. Income inequality is left unchallenged because many people perceive wealth inequality as the natural result of different paths (including different amounts and application of effort and ability), rather than a social problem. To put is simply, we need to stop thinking that being rich or poor is based on something you did to deserve it, that it can’t be changed with government policy.
Republicans have successfully—and with little apparent opposition—framed public conversations about redistributive policies as a subversion of traditional American values and culture, while promoting the ideal of wealth. Trickledown economic policies benefit the wealthy and ask lower-income families to pay for policies that disproportionately benefit the wealthy. Conservative politicians use race to portray White interests as opposing Black interests, reinforcing a White-against-Black mentality and portraying Blacks as lacking the character necessary to build wealth. From this colorized perspective, wealth inequality is not caused by inadequate access to wealth building institutions (access to mainstream financial institutions) or regressive incentive structures (means-tested public assistance programs that set the asset threshold of low-income families hoping to qualify for assistance). Instead, they reinforce the incorrect perception that wealth inequality exists because low-income families have not exerted the required effort, or lack the innate ability, to build wealth.
Democrats are also concerned that redistribution policies will negatively impact our current economic system. They continue to frame wealth inequality as a problem to address after America wins the war on poverty, rather than considering wealth inequality an unjust and an integral part of our current economic system. Liberal researchers have also unintentionally helped to create an “us-against-them” mentality among low-income households, particularly among poor White Americans, by focusing mainly on the wealth inequality of Black Americans, while ignoring the role that wealth inequality plays in the lives of low-income White Americans.
Even the media has played a significant role in the colorization of poverty by disproportionately depicting poverty using images of persons of color. Images that focus attention on Black Americans has resulted in many White Americans underestimating the degree to which wealth inequality impacts their own lives. They attribute the Black/White wealth gap to a lack of effort and ability by low-wealth Blacks. This perception, coupled with the deep historical racial divides in America, highlight the need for data that challenge the assumption that wealth inequality is “only” a Black problem.
While Black experience with wealth building is complicated by a long history of exploitation and oppression in America, it should not be used to obscure the struggles that many White households face and the perilous way they, too, are exposed to threat of economic devastation in the current economy. When economic resources are increasingly scarce for the middle and lower classes, inter-group conflict and racial resentment is exacerbated. President Barack Obama echoed this insight:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Smith, 2008, April 11).
Many working class White Americans say they feel ignored by those perceived as elitists, such as educated professionals and lawmakers. Facing financial hardship and feeling their interests eroded, some working-class Whites have come to see economic insecurity through a racial lens, often attributing it to the influx of non-White immigrants and to the “special treatment” afforded non-Whites or Blacks. Stories shared on social media of an end to the White majority in America, coupled with a steady influx of immigrants from non-White countries, may cause some Whites to feel that they need to do something to preserve White economic and political power. Among White conservatives, Obama’s presidency—rather than improving their understanding of race and racial inequality—led to increased feelings of racial resentment, frustration, and being “othered”. Feelings of being “othered” increased their desire to associate themselves with higher-income Whites, such as Trump.
Discussions of wealth-inequality in the news or on social media have been unbalanced and often interpreted as blaming or categorizing Whites as privileged, in a way that obscures the substantial status differences between White Americans at the top 10% of income and the bottom 50%. If asked, most White Americans would tend to say they earn the average income when if fact they likely qualify as poor. Often, poor and middle-class White households are angered by the message that Blacks have been oppressed by Whites, and the only way to fix this injustice is to take wealth from Whites—a group to which they belong, and give it to Blacks. They don’t stop to consider that they too have been disadvantaged by wealth inequality.
Conservative politicians capitalize on what White Americans feel—if not experience—the desire to construct a just world in which effort and ability determine success and failure. What they don’t tell us about their policies is that they won’t reward our efforts, lift us out of poverty, or allow us to achieve higher incomes. If anything our effort under the current economic system simply increases the profitability of the company for which we work and the gains go to the shareholders not to the workers.
Republicans have created a political platform that pits ‘us-against-them’ while expanding economic advantage (i.e. tax breaks) to wealthy White Americans, and bail outs for banks. Neither party wants to address the real needs of poor and middle-class Americans—particularly regarding policy intended to redistribute wealth—instead they focus on issues related to race and nationalism. This focus complicates efforts to demonstrate that wealthy Whites have manipulated the economic system to maintain, and even build, their own wealth on the backs of not only Blacks, but also poor and middle-class Whites.
Historically those who hold the wealth and political power have used differences in our cultural values to create an “us” against “them” mentality that keeps poor whites and poor blacks from working together to redistribute wealth. It was the billionaire Koch brothers who provided early funding for the Tea Party movement, who re-packaged populism in a reactionary and overly racial wrapper, rather than allowing it to target more precisely the origins of inequality.
Court houses across our country depict a figure that represents the ‘Lady of Justice‘. She is a blindfolded woman carrying a sword and a set of scales to symbolize “fair and equal administration of the law, without corruption, favor, greed, or prejudice. The blindfold represents objectivity and impartiality, that justice should be meted out without fear or favor, regardless of money, wealth, or power. She holds scales to represent the weighing of evidence, evidence must be weighed on its own merit. The sword represents punishment, signifying that justice can be swift and final. She holds the sword below the scales to show that evidence weighted on its merit in a court of law come before punishment. The snake under her foot represents evil, and lies, and the book is the law, the constitution from which justice is administered.”
Justice should be blind, it should not make distinctions based on our skin color, gender, sexual status, or wealth. Our access to justice should not be determined by our ability to pay for an attorney. We live during a time when far too many Americans live in ‘precarity’, having too little access to resources. Yet when Progressive Democrats call for political action to address these issues, when Black Lives Matter supporters call for justice in policing, there is push back from those who feel threatened by these demands. Wealth inequality is an American problem that truly threatens everyone’s ability to secure advancement through effort and ability. When income is unequal, we are rewarded or punished based on the circumstance into which we are born, not our effort to rise up from them.
In a democratic society enacting and implementing any meaningful legislation requires coming together, which is why we should be suspicious of political rhetoric that divides us. We need to recognize our common interest in addressing wealth inequality and work together to pass legislation that limits wealth concentration and redistributes it from the top down. Imagine what our society would look like if the distribution of wealth was a bell curve, if the majority of Americans, even the majority of world citizens were able to live a middle class lifestyle. Yes, we need to address the wealth gap that exists based on our gender or skin color, but the treatment needed for all inequality is the same: re-distributive wealth policies. Too much wealth concentrated in the hands of too few, makes the American dream unattainable for everyone else. The dream of seeing your children attain a better life than you is a human dream of every parent. Equality and justice for all cannot exist when too few have too much, and the majority have too little.
6 Replies to “Inequality, Poverty, and Injustice; a problem of too much and not enough.”
Thanks for sharing this impassioned piece, Jody, and that picture at the top really tells a story.
Wealth inequality corrodes public and private life in myriad ways and should be challenged and reversed. I think it’s well known now that above a basic level of prosperity, personal and community well-being correlates better with narrower wealth gaps than it does with total sum of wealth. Soft socialism/soft capitalism can be a partial answer – North European social democracies for example – but then the word ‘socialism’ is toxic in the Anglosphere, and lots of money and effort is spent on keeping it that way.
Another obstacle to doing anything about wealth inequality: it’s only the sharp edge of a deeper set of problems in how society is structured and conceived of and justified. So long as ‘freedom’ includes freedom for the rich to bully and exploit, and ‘competition’ means the rich are allowed to beat all comers at all costs, and ‘justice’ means one law for the rich and another law for the rest, then we’re going to stay locked into trickle-up economics. So long as the custodians of disgraceful accumulations of ‘personal wealth’ are venerated instead of being shamed by the rest of us, we’re going to have to carry on living our lives on their terms not ours.
I couldn’t agree more about the social democratic Northern European countries. Having grown up in a Scandinavian immigrant community in Minnesota I experienced soft-socialism first hand. Minnesota still has a large population of people who value hard work and thriftiness, being there to help each other when it’s needed. We just saw it as being a community.
You are correct that “custodians of disgraceful accumulations of ‘personal wealth’ are venerated instead of being shamed…” Young people (especially in the Black community) venerate wealthy athletes and even criminals, and unfortunately have no path upward in their own life.
I suppose I was ambitious when young, wanting to get ahead in life and do better than my parents. Mostly I wanted to go to college because I loved learning. After college when a good job made life more secure then came children and family, and as a parent I felt all the hopes and fears we endure that our children will suffer or make mistakes as they became adults. I can still recall when my kids were grown and I realized that I had accomplished what I had wanted to in life, that I had everything I needed. What a relief to know life no longer was something that called for “more” effort, or more savings. I felt content with life.
Unfortunately few people reach this point, either because they have too little or because they never think they have enough, even when they have ‘disgraceful amounts of accumulation’ (a nice term by the way).
How is your graduate work going and how are your kids?
This is an excellent, reasoned, bold, insightful essay, Jody. Thank you for writing and sharing it here! The US has a terrible problem with inequality which we are not addressing, or not addressing well. The entanglement of this inequality with race issues makes it even more difficult to address. We havenʻt really come to terms with what happened to native people and to black people under slavery in our culture, and I think this haunts our national subconscious, making it hard to have rational conversations about these issues. Yikes! But essays such as yours, calm, reasoned, bi-partisan, can perhaps make a difference in changing our national conversation.
High praise Michelle. As I’ve watched the riots and protests across the country and listened to the politicians using it for their election campaign I’ve often thought that something about the situation wasn’t truthful. You are absolutely correct that Americans haven’t come to terms with what happened to native people and black people. I didn’t make the connection between income inequality and White guilt until I read the paper by Elliot et.al. https://aedi.ssw.umich.edu/sites/default/files/publications/White_Wealth_Inequality.pdf It’s obvious once someone explains it clearly. Wealth holders use a variety of tactics to distract us from demanding that they stop hoarding wealth. Racism, sexism, law and order…anything to prevent people from actually understanding how income inequality affects the average person.
There are too many liberals who like to believe they are trying to improve conditions for the less well off but rarely do they actually want to change the system that benefits them. Moderates say they want change but all too often we work to maintain the status quo because radical change is just too scary! And conservatives have fallen into a terrible state having succumbed to the dark side that Trump represents. When did Christ ever tell people it was okay to become rich?
There are times I agree with those who say the system has to collapse before real change will happen. Those who hold the power just keep propping it up. But then I look at stories of people hit by the latest weather disaster, stories about people who are facing homelessness due to the pandemic, and I realize that we have to keep trying to do better because an all out collapse of our civilization would be infinitely worse. The level of suffering for the majority of the world’s citizens would be orders of magnitude worse than it already is.
So I’ll keep writing and hoping that I can be a force for good change. How is your daughter doing in college?
Hi Jody – I’m still at the ‘hopes and fears’ stage of parenting but relishing it anyway. Just hoping they eventually forgive me for years of being such a bossy, dadsplaining, pompous fool. (They will.) I wrapped up the MSc a couple of years back, left a comfy white-collar job, and started scratching around to make a self-employed urban living just in time for global lockdown. Precarity bites!
I’m glad to read your and Michelle’s comments on the hidden cost of repressed national histories. It’s a beautiful thing to witness the lid coming off, or at least getting knocked to a tilt. Whatever happens in the US is magnified for the world, justifiably so, but every nation carries its burden of guilt and owes a debt of reckoning. And it’s linked, isn’t it? I mean, we can’t save a beautiful world (for ‘save’ read: shift the environmental trajectory to a less unbearable prognosis) without having that reckoning, those reckonings. Or to put it another way, if we can’t redress the gross imbalances – the wealth, ethnic and gender inequalities which have been wrecking lives ever since Eden – then what’s the point?
Chris, I’m sorry to hear that you made a change just when things fell apart. Let’s hope conditions improve. One never really knows when it’s a good time to take a chance. I vividly recall the roller coaster ride I experienced starting my own business. At first I felt thrilled with the idea of starting my own business, but the day after I signed the contract and quit my job I woke up in a panic wondering what the hell I was thinking! Lots of times those first few years when I lived on the edge of uncertainty. I found more times to pray than I probably ever did in my life. I suppose one shouldn’t ask for something for them self but when I prayed “God help me!” I really meant it. Strangely enough I can’t tell you how many times I prayed for customers only to get a call and an order shortly after. I know we can’t always expect our faith to work that way but I’ve had more times when prayers were answered than not. But I like to think I make up for it by being a good person!
So what are you attempting to do as a self employed urbanite?
With respect to humanity’s history of exploitation, well in some ways I don’t think we can take responsibility for what was done by others. We can try to do better, but we can’t be responsible for something we took no part in. So the guilt isn’t helpful, IMO.
I really don’t think the “earth” takes humans all that seriously. The earth’s systems will respond to perturbations according to the laws of chemistry and physics. Life’s other species also don’t think about humanity. They go on living as best they can. Maybe the pain we (few) humans feel about what humanity has done and is doing to the earth is comparable to the pain we feel as parents. We hope we don’t but we know we do screw up. Our kids…they love us even in our worst of times. Oh we’ll hear about it when they are teenagers, but by the time they become more mature adults and make mistakes of their own they tend to forgive us for our mistakes.
Bottom line….do the best you can, when you can, and don’t worry about the rest. Nature will work it out in the end (with or without us). I’d like to think humanity will learn before it’s too late for us.
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