With Congress gridlocked, we must look to local governments to pursue more innovative strategies for promoting equal opportunity.
Americans don’t believe in guaranteed equal outcomes, but we do believe in equal opportunity and the ability to achieve a decent livelihood if one works hard. Unfortunately, the United States, despite being the world’s largest economy, is in the top quartile of the most unequal states, along with countries like Bulgaria, and is more unequal than all of Europe. In addition to high levels of income inequality, the United States still faces a jobs crisis, meaning that many people who want to work to achieve economic stability cannot find gainful employment.
Given the congressional gridlock impeding efforts to promote economic opportunity at the federal level, we should look to community-based solutions to mitigate our unsustainable levels of inequality.
Over the past several decades, political leaders have tried to stimulate the economy on the supply side. They have provided incentives for businesses to invest in capital improvements, loosened regulations to encourage business growth, and lowered tax rates to give investors an incentive to take risks and create jobs. But we do not have a supply-side problem.
Our problem is on the demand side. Average Americans have so little wealth that they cannot afford to consume what companies sell. Income inequality has grown to the extent that those who are not at the very top can no longer afford to participate in the market.
Hyper-partisanship and the special interests that fuel it make it impossible for the current Congress to address the declining wealth of America’s middle- and low-income communities. Just look to the Ryan-Murray budget compromise: Congress is refusing to extend unemployment insurance, claiming that an extension will discourage recipients from looking for new work, while at the same time, congressional Republicans complain that the president is not creating enough jobs for those same workers. While they focus on scoring political points, American workers continue to suffer.
Given the intransigence and stalling at the federal level, what immediate actions can be taken to provide economic security and agency to average Americans? For this, one must turn to our cities and towns.
This is not a simple solution, because local governments do not have the same fiscal tools that Congress has. Cities cannot levy a progressive income tax on residents to fund redistribution, but instead must work with sales and property taxes. These taxes are regressive and punish the very people localities want to support. Some municipalities have tried to attract high-dollar business and residential developments in order to bring in revenues to support progressive programs such as universal pre-K and housing support. Unfortunately, too much development to this degree will backfire by pushing out lower-income and middle-class families.
In order to be effective, plans to address rampant inequality at the local level must be innovative. Instead of focusing on attracting developments solely as a source of tax revenue, local governments should incentivize the creation of local businesses that have fair and uplifting worker practices. For example, the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry in Cleveland Ohio, frequently referred to as the Cleveland Model, pays living wages and allows its employees to earn ownership in the company after a certain period of time. It is a prime example of providing an equal opportunity for American workers to maintain a decent livelihood and to move up economically if they commit to it.
By providing direct loans, utility subsidies, bonds for capital purchases, and other incentives to cooperative model businesses that promote high wages and greater employee agency, localities can support the growth of living wage businesses in areas where they may never have existed before. This will jumpstart a cycle of quality jobs for underserved communities and begin to remedy the demand-side economic challenges our economy faces.
While the detrimental effects of rising income inequality in America are widespread, we do not have to wait for federal action to start implementing solutions that will level the economic playing field. By supporting worker-empowering businesses close to home, local governments can both support job creation in their areas and provide workers with the opportunity they need to lift themselves out of their tough financial situations.
Joelle Gamble is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Field Strategist.
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