Economic opportunity, a goal worth pursuing
The numbers are staggering. Wealth, defined as the assets in society, are controlled by a small part of the population both in the United States and the world. In our country, 20% of the people control 85% of the assets.
In the world, 1% controls 46% of the assets.
Income inequality in the United States is growing even faster. Between 1966 and 2011, the income of 90% of the population grew by a mere $59, adjusted for inflation, while the income of the top 10% during that same period grew by $116,071. Education inequality and wage inequality and lifespan inequality are all a piece of our economic landscape. Yes, rich people live 4.5 years longer than the rest of us.
It’s not that we don’t have enough resources. Lawrence Mishel, a labor economist and an old friend, has been studying productivity and wages. Larry is the President of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. According to his work, productivity has been growing in the U.S. since 1948. At first, wages and productivity grew together. Since 1973, productivity continued to grow by some 80% but wages have only grown by 10.7% for the median working family.
High wage earners have been getting an increasingly larger piece of the pie and more of the productivity resources have been going to wealth, according to Mishel.
What can we do? Solutions are not easy since we know that people often do not share power and money without demand and struggle. But, such solutions are out there and include a ‘living’ minimum wage, good benefits, health care and pensions. If unions were to have a resurgence, this would also enable the fight for the quality of jobs.
There is another small but significant success story to give us hope. Over 20 years ago, I did some consulting for Fair Share Housing in Mt Laurel, New Jersey. This was part of the effort to fight for the implementation of the Mt. Laurel Decision which calls for all counties in the state to share in meeting the affordable housing need. This means mixed income communities. In 2000, construction was completed on 140 affordable housing units in Mt Laurel, a wealthy suburban community just 15 miles from one of the poorest cities in the country, Camden.
Some 13 years later and the verdict is that the town and its wealthy residents were unaffected by the 140 families many of whom had incomes as low as $8,150. In fact, the new families due to better schools and job opportunities saw great improvement in their economic lives.
Look, any public opinion poll clearly demonstrates that the great majority of America believes in the importance of bridging the gap and creating economic opportunity for all the people. It may be difficult for this to happen in a free market economy that is not really free and allows the distribution of wealth and income to go only to the very rich. Our CEOs in many companies make over 200 times the amount of the average worker. Concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty do not create a healthy society.
We must all be prophets for a new balance. And the old Buddhist saying, will be appropriate. “When the students is ready, a teacher will appear.”