What We’re Not Talking About When We Talk About Inequality

Oct 31, 2012Joelle Gamble

It's not enough to maintain a safety net that catches people when they fall. We have to keep them from falling in the first place.

As a millennial, my generation has been told that if we simply work hard and go to college we will be able to achieve even greater economic gains than our parents. That promise now rings false. The gap between the economic have and have-nots is widening dramatically. Those of us who grow up in middle or low-income families may not have the opportunity to move up the socioeconomic ladder. With the widening gulf between rich and poor hampering economic opportunity so markedly that economist Alan Kreuger has named the phenomenon the Great Gatsby Curve, we need to ask ourselves if our political leadership is taking the right steps to address inequality in America.

The current election debate has focused on progressive tax policy and debt reduction as the central components of how government will both spur growth and reduce inequality in America. We only hear about how education, infrastructure, and health care play into the debate on specific occasions, such as when a question is directed toward one of those topics.

Meanwhile, the conversation around government priorities, outside of direct fiscal policy, has been limited to what programs people will lose if a particular candidate is elected. The two major presidential candidates, as well as many down ticket national candidates, regularly accuse each other of wanting to destroy social security “as it is” or restrict access to Medicare for seniors.

How we change tax rates on the middle class and how we continue to fund our social safety net are both important questions. Our government must ensure that the tax code is working fairly. It must make sure that social programs protect individuals when they fall. But the larger drivers of our economic growth and equality in the United States are being largely ignored in favor of these narrow topics. It is not enough to catch people when they fall. Government must, more importantly, ensure that its citizens have the equal access to resources that will make them less likely to fall in the first place. By providing equality and opportunity, we can spur long-term economic growth and prevent higher costs.

There are some investments that government can make that will do more for long-term economic growth and equality in America than others. Investing in education and job training, building a strong infrastructure of Internet access, and providing quality health care has been shown to not only reduce inequality but also promote economic growth.

Education and training are paramount in providing job opportunities. One of the largest factors affecting earnings inequality in the United States is technological change. Innovation has caused many modern companies and industries to become increasingly dependent on the availability of human capital found in the communities in which they are located. Areas with higher percentages of college-educated works are doing better at attracting and retaining business (and the jobs they bring) than areas with less educated populations. American workers need affordable access to education and skills training to be able to compete in the changing labor market.

Future worker competitiveness will also depend on building strong information infrastructure, especially increasing access to high-speed Internet, as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford rightly argues. Technology has created jobs that require workers to be able to work with large quantities of information and work collaboratively with partners who may not live in the same country, yet alone the same city. Even simple processes such as job applications or unemployment benefit applications now require access to a stable Internet connection. Currently, around one-third of Americans lack access to high-speed Internet.

As has been widely shown, access to quality, affordable health care reduces costs for individuals and their families, as well as American taxpayers as a whole. In the absence of access to affordable preventative care, only individuals with significant financial resources can pay for regular doctor visits, examinations and, potentially, long hospital stays. For those without large incomes, these basic health care needs can severely affect their ability to pay bills and sometimes send them into bankruptcy. Beyond basic care and insurance, affordable care for reproductive health services can serve as a step toward gender parity.

Not only do education, Internet access, and health care move us toward a more equal society, they also give taxpayers more for their tax-dollar. Individuals without access to quality schools and health care grow up to have fewer choices and opportunities to get high-skill, high-pay jobs that offer benefits. This makes them more likely to need social programs during the course of their lives. Making a stronger initial investment in programs such as education and heath care that give people opportunities is wiser than allowing the negative effects of failing to do so cripple the federal budget and the economy over the long run.

Making a stronger initial investment in opportunity via programs such as education and heath care is wiser than allowing the negative effects of not making those investments cripple the federal budget and the economy over the long run. None of this is to say that spending on defense, physical infrastructure, and our basic social safety net are not needed. But the United States needs to change its priorities and push for long-term planning with investments in long-term results. Education, information, and quality care are key to producing a more equitable society.

Joelle Gamble is Deputy Field Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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