By Lester Asamoah
The United States is undoubtedly richer and more prosperous than it was twenty years ago. Technology is quickly advancing, and Americans have access to knowledge like never before. It’s a great picture to paint, right? The Americans with access to capital are prospering, and even the middle class citizens are experiencing microcosms of great prosperity. The sunny skies of happiness and growth, however, are deluded by clouds of concern for those with no access to capital. Aka, those that are in the lowest socio-economic classes.
Setting the Gini Free
One would think post World War II innovations would mean a decreasing gap in inequality. While many have prospered, few have suffered. The Gini Coefficient is a measure of income inequality where 0.00 represents complete equality (everyone making the exact same wages, etc) and 1.00 represents complete inequality (one person earning 99.9% of all wages, etc). Basically, the closer the Gini coefficient gets to 1, the more stratified the inequality. A study from the US Department of Commerce illustrates how the United States’ Gini has risen since the 1940s:
(taken from CBS’ News Article, How Do We Know Income Inequality is Getting Worse?)
Why do we care about this Gini that won’t grant our wishes? Because it means that the poorest Americans are increasingly reeling – income inequality is far beyond the simplicity of working hard and not working hard. It is the difference between access to capital, opportunity, education, and safety. The people at the very top are accumulating more and more access to these things, while the people at the very bottom are simultaneously losing access to these things.
A Broken Ladder
We know that inequality exists and is highly persistent in United States. Movements like Occupy Wall Street are ways Americans express frustration at the growing Gini. Now, this isn’t the point where I scream “socialism” and demand that the government purge the accounts of the 0.01%. In fact, I agree with The Economist’s article Inequality and the American Dream when they say “Inequality is not inherently wrong—as long as three conditions are met: first, society as a whole is getting richer; second, there is a safety net for the very poor; and third, everybody, regardless of class, race, creed or sex, has an opportunity to climb up through the system.” America actually seems to be doing well until we reach the third condition. But not meeting that third condition is grave for many opportunity-seeking Americans. In a previous post, The Mirage of Opportunity, I write about inequality on a racial level. Beyond that, however, we still have heated debate over opportunities for women (Equal Pay Bill in the US Senate) and impoverished Americans (Colleges perpetuating class divides) to climb the ladder. There’s no need to cry Socialism, but there is a need to scream equality of opportunity. If the American dream means climbing the ladder, we first must fix the ladder – it’s missing almost all of its rungs near the bottom.
Repairing a Ladder, Breaking Oppressive Systems
Repairing the ladder means fighting for equality of opportunity. Women must be paid the same wages, public education must make a strong comeback, and minorities must be given equal opportunity in the workplace, classroom, and society. Returning to the heart of Thirty-Eight Minutes and my previous posts, we must fight the corrupt and unequal systems in place now. Demanding equal rights for women, minorities, and the impoverished is critical. And doing so not just to be trendy, but because people’s lives are on the line. As the famous economist Dr. Joseph Stiglitz points out in his New York Times opinion article, Inequality is not Inevitable, Americans do not have to idly stand by and watch inequality grow. First and foremost, we must get the money out of politics. A daunting, but necessary task. Large farming receives subsidies while the impoverished suffer nutritionally, and big pharma is raking in billions but not everyone can get access to health care. These are only two of many instances where lobbying efforts are steering politics. I don’t have the precise knowledge on how to suck the money out of politics, but I do know awareness and speaking out is the first step in the journey. Next, we must fight for justice. The stratification of wealth also means the price tag for justice is rising – the wealthy can afford lawyers and steep bails, while the lower-income Americans have little judicial resources and no recourse against injustices. White-collar crime continues (and the victims are often blamed), while increasingly privatized jails fill up with lower-income, often minority, people.
We have to repair the American Dream and pursue a reasonable level of equality of opportunity. The American Dream is certainly not dead, but it is unreachable for many. Our nation’s mantra is “justice and liberty for all”. When will we stop pretending justice and liberty exists for all, and start securing justice and liberty for those that do not have it?
Lester Asamoah is an International Security Studies Senior at the University of Oklahoma.