Tag Archives: inequality

It Helps the Rich and Powerful that People Are Mystified By Enormous Inequality

New Orleans   Some professors are reporting that they are changing their minds about the importance of equality to people. They argue that it’s more about access to opportunity than it is about distribution. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other.

Key to their change of mind, reported in the Wall Street Journal, was a survey of 5000 Americans in 2011. The upshot was that those people surveyed thought that in a perfect society, individuals in the top 20% should have more than three times as much money as individuals in the bottom 20%. They also were unaware how unequal society is today, thinking that the bottom 40% had 9% of wealth and the top 20% had 59%, while actual proportions were 0.3% at the bottom and 84% at the top.

Frankly, it was hard for me to follow the argument being made by the profs, at least from the weight being attributed to the survey. To say that people are OK with there being a $3 to $1 difference between the top and the bottom when they believed that there was more than a $6 to $1 divide now, would seem to make the case that in fact people want major advance in equality. Furthermore, when you compare the reality that there the top 20% have 280 times more wealth than the bottom, then narrowing the gap to the richest segment only having three time the wealth of the bottom 20% is almost revolutionary!

It seems to me that from those numbers the desire for more equality is deep and profound. This is the United States, and Americans are not suddenly going to say they believe that everyone should get an absolutely equal piece of the pie with a dollar for me for every dollar for you. This is country proclaiming itself the “land of opportunity.” People want more equality, but they only know how to get there by winning more equality of opportunity, hoping against the evidence and their own life experience that the gap narrows with better breaks and a fairer deal.

In this age of gross inequity and almost total residential segregation of huge wealth from most lower income people, and vice-versa, there is no way people can get their minds wrapped around the fact that people holding onto more than 280 times their wealth are living in the same world or what their world might be like. It makes your head hurt. It strains the brain.

Meanwhile those doing the bidding fluff up the opportunity issue to change the conversation from gross greed at the top to false claims of slovenliness at the bottom. And, they get away with it more often than not, until it comes to taking something away from the bottom, like their healthcare, and then it’s harder to pull off the crime in broad daylight, since it normally happens daily in the high towers and behind the gated walls.

No one should make the mistake that inequality is not a huge issue and a bomb rolling around the street waiting to be exploded.


Weaker Unions Mean Less Racial Equality

unionsNew Orleans   As great as it is to finally see some increasing attention being paid to the issues of inequality that have been so many decades in the making, perhaps not enough attention is being paid to the critical role of unions in bridging the inequality gap, especially when it comes to the critical issues of racial inequality.   At least that is the important message being carried by Professor Jake Rosenfeld from the University of Washington as I heard him address the subject in a recent talk at Loyola University on “What Unions No Longer Do and What it Means for Racial Inequality,” which is also the subject of a forthcoming book he has written.

            Rosenfeld has gone deeply into the Census Bureau numbers since they began recording information on union membership and found some very important statistical evidence on the value of union membership in achieving racial equality in the 1970’s when union density was still relatively robust.   In that period the difference in pay between whites and African-Americans was actually very small, partially because African-American women were two times as likely to be union members as white women and African-American men were 50% more likely to be union members as white men.  Couple the higher African-American membership rates with the well documented wage premiums that come with union membership, and, as Professor Rosenfeld argues, it’s hard to deny the critical contribution that union membership was making to racial wage equality.

            From 1973, when the figures became available, to 2009, the union “premium” was over 22% for black women and 30% for black men over non-unionized workers.  White women had a greater wage premium than black women, and white men had a lower wage premium than black men, even though both were paid more than nonunion workers.  Over the entire period though private sector union membership fell precipitously from over 30% to less than 10%.  In a painful quote Rosenfeld shared from the Princeton political scientist, Paul Frymer, equality was achieved before the fall through “diversification of an increasingly marginal institution.”  And, yes, the “marginal institution” Frymer is talking about is the American labor movement.  The demise of organized labor allowed corporations to decouple pay and productivity, so though wild increases in productivity of workers have been experienced in the last 30 years, pay has virtually stagnated, exacerbating inequities. 

            Don’t hold your breath looking for extensive proposals to increase the strength of labor unions though, no matter how much rhetoric is now fueling the debate on inequality.  Nonetheless the facts are the facts, and a weaker labor movement winning fair wages and justice on the job means the achievement of equality in the United States will be harder and harder to realize.