Stiglitz: Why Inequality Matters and What Can Be Done About It

Apr 1, 2014Joseph Stiglitz

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz will speak before the Senate Budget Committee today on the topic of "Opportunity, Mobility, and Inequality in Today's Economy." His prepared remarks are below. Click here to download all of the statements from the hearing.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz will speak before the Senate Budget Committee today on the topic of "Opportunity, Mobility, and Inequality in Today's Economy." His prepared remarks are below. Click here to download all of the statements from the hearing.

It is a great pleasure for me to discuss with you one of the critical issues facing our country, its growing inequality, the effect it is having on our economy, and the policies that we might undertake to alleviate it. America has achieved the distinction of becoming the country with the highest level of income inequality among the advanced countries. While there is no single number that can depict all aspects of society’s inequality, matters have become worse in every dimension: more money goes to the top (more than a fifth of all income goes to the top 1%), more people are in poverty at the bottom, and the middle class—long the core strength of our society—has seen its income stagnate. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, today is lower than it was in 1989, a quarter century ago.[1] An economy in which most citizens see no progress, year after year, is an economy that is failing to perform in the way it should. Indeed, there is a vicious circle: our high inequality is one of the major contributing factors to our weak economy and our low growth.

As disturbing as the data on the growing inequality in income are, those that describe the other dimensions of America’s inequality are even worse: inequalities in wealth are even greater than income, and there are marked inequalities in health, reflected in differences, for instance, in life expectancy. But perhaps the most invidious aspect of US inequality is the inequality of opportunity. America has become the advanced country not only with the highest level of inequality, but is among those with the least equality of opportunity—the statistics show that the American dream is a myth; that the life prospects of a young American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in other developed countries. We have betrayed one of our most fundamental values. And the result is that we are wasting our most valuable resource, our human resources: millions of those at the bottom are not able to live up to their potential.

This morning, I want to make eight observations concerning this inequality. The first is that this inequality is largely a result of policies—of what we do and don’t do. The laws of economics are universal: the fact that in some countries there is so much less inequality and so much more equality of opportunity, the fact that in some countries inequality is not increasing—it is actually decreasing—is not because they have different laws of economics. Every aspect of our economic, legal, and social frameworks helps shape our inequality: from our education system and how we finance it, to our health system, to our tax laws, to our laws governing bankruptcy, corporate governance, the functioning of our financial system, to our anti-trust laws. In virtually every domain, we have made decisions that help enrich the top at the expense of the rest.

The second observation is that much of the inequality at the top can’t be justified as “just deserts” for the large contributions that these individuals have made. If we look at those at the top, they are not those who have made the major innovations that have transformed our economy and society; they are not the discoverers of DNA, the laser, the transistor; not the brilliant individuals who made the discoveries without which we would not have had the modern computer. Disproportionately, they are those who have excelled in rent seeking, in wealth appropriation, in figuring out how to get a larger share of the nation’s pie, rather than enhancing the size of that pie. (Such rent seeking activity typically actually results in the size of the economic pie shrinking from what it otherwise would be.) Among the most notable of these are, of course, those in the financial sector, who made their wealth by market manipulation, by engaging in abusive credit card practices, predatory lending, moving money from the bottom and middle of the income pyramid to the top. So too, a monopolist makes his money by contracting output from what it otherwise would be, not by expanding it.

Thirdly, the idea that one shouldn’t worry about inequality because everyone will benefit as money trickles down, has been thoroughly discredited. In some ways, I wish it were true, for if it were, it would mean that the average American would be doing very well today, because we have thrown so much money at the top. But the statistics I gave a few minutes ago shows that it is not true: while the top has been doing very well, the rest has been stagnating.

Fourthly, this recession—while in no small measure caused by the financial sector which itself is responsible for so much of our inequality today—has in turn made inequality so much worse. 95% of the gains since the so-called recovery have gone to the top 1%.

Fifth, it is not the case that our economy needs this inequality to continue to grow. One of the popular misconceptions is that those at the top are the job creators; and giving more money to them will thus create more jobs. America is full of creative entrepreneurial people throughout the income distribution. What creates jobs is demand: when there is demand, America’s firms (especially if we can get our financial system to work in the way it should, providing credit to small and medium-sized enterprises) will create the jobs to satisfy that demand. And unfortunately, given our distorted tax system, for too many at the top, there are incentives to destroy jobs by moving them abroad. This growing inequality is in fact weakening demand—one of the reasons that inequality is bad for economic performance.

Sixth, we pay a high price for this inequality, in terms of our democracy and nature of our society. A divided society is different—it doesn't function as well. Our democracy is undermined, as economic inequality inevitably translates into political inequality. I describe in my book how the outcomes of America’s politics are increasingly better described as the result of a system not of one person one vote but of one dollar one vote. One of the prices we pay for the extremes to which inequality has grown and the nature of inequality in America—both inequality in outcomes and inequalities of opportunities—is that we have a weaker economy. Greater inequality leads to lower growth and more instability. These ideas now have become mainstream: even the IMF has embraced them. We used to think of there being a trade-off: we could achieve more equality, but only at the expense of giving up on overall economic performance. Now we realize that, especially given the extremes of inequality achieved in the US and the manner in which it is generated, greater equality and improved economic performance are complements.

This is especially true if we focus on appropriate measures of growth, focusing not on what is happening on average, or to those at the top, but how the economy is performing for the typical American, reflected for instance in median income. For too many—perhaps even a majority—the American economy has not been delivering. And if our economy is not delivering, it not only hurts our people, it undermines our position of leadership in the world: will other countries want to emulate an economic system in which most individuals’ incomes are simply stagnating?

We pay a price not only in terms of a weak economy today, but lower growth in the future. With nearly one in four American children growing up in poverty,[2] many of whom face a lack of access to adequate nutrition and education, the country’s long-term prospects are being put into jeopardy.

The seventh observation is that the weaknesses in our economy have important budgetary implications. The budget deficits of recent years are a result of our weak economy, not the other way around. If we had more robust growth, our budgetary situation would be far improved. That’s why investments in decreasing inequality and increasing equality of opportunity make sense not only for our economy, but for our budget. When we invest in our children, the asset side of our country’s balance sheet goes up, even more than the liability set: any business would see that its net worth is increased. In the long run, even looking narrowly on the liability side of the balance sheet, it will be improved, as these young people earn higher incomes and contribute more to the tax base.

The final observation I want to make is that the role of policy in creating inequality means there is a glimmer of hope. Policy created the problem, and it can help get us out of it. There are policies that could reduce the extremes of inequality and increase opportunity—enabling our country to live up to the values to which it aspires. There is no magic bullet, but there are a host of policies that would make a difference. In the last chapter of my book, The Price of Inequality, I outline 21 such policies, affecting both the distribution of income before taxes and transfers and after. We need to move more people out of poverty, strengthen the middle class, and curb the excesses at the top. Most of the policies are familiar: more support for education, including pre-school; increasing the minimum wage; strengthening the earned-income tax credit; giving more voice to workers in the workplace, including through unions; more effective enforcement of anti-discrimination laws; better corporate governance, to curb the abuses of CEO pay; better financial sector regulations, to curb not just market manipulation and excessive speculative activity, but also predatory lending and abusive credit card practices; better anti-trust laws, and better enforcement of the laws we have; and a fairer tax system—one that does not reward speculators or those that take advantage of off-shore tax havens with tax rates lower than honest Americans who work for a living. If we are to avoid the creation of a new plutocracy in the country, we have to retain a good system of inheritance and estate taxation, and ensure that it is effectively enforced. We need to make sure that everyone who has the potential to go to college can do so, no matter what the income of his parents—and to do so without undertaking crushing loans. We stand out among advanced countries not only in our level of inequality, but also on how we treat student loans in our bankruptcy loans. A rich person borrowing to buy a yacht can get a fresh start, and have his loans forgiven; not so for a poor student striving to get ahead. The special provisions for capital gains and dividends not only distort the economy, but, with the vast majority of the benefits going to the very top, increase inequality—at the same time that they impose enormous budgetary costs: $2 trillion dollars over the next ten years, according to the CBO.[3] While the elimination of the special provisions for capital gains and dividends is the most obvious reform in the tax code that would improve inequality and raise substantial amounts of revenues, there are many others that I discuss in the attached paper which I would like to submit for the record.

A final point is that we must be careful of how we measure our progress. If we use the wrong metrics, we will strive for the wrong things. Economic growth as measured by GDP is not enough—there is a growing global consensus that GDP does not provide a good measure of overall economic performance. What matters is whether growth is sustainable, and whether most citizens see their living standards rising year after year. This is the central message of the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, which I chaired. Since the beginning of the new millennium, our economy has clearly not been performing in either of these dimensions. But the problems in our economy have been manifest for longer. As I have emphasized, a key factor underlying America’s economic problems today is its growing inequality and the low level of opportunity.

In the past, when our country reached these extremes of inequality, at the end of the 19th century, in the gilded age, or in the Roaring 20s, it pulled back from the brink. It enacted policies and programs that provided hope that the American dream could return to being a reality.

We are now at one of these pivotal points in history. I hope we once again will make the right decisions. You and your committee, in the budget decisions that you will be making, play a vital role in setting the country in the right direction.

[1] For large segments of the American population, matters are even worse. The inflation adjusted median income of a male worker with only a high school degree has fallen by 47% from 1969 to 2009. For additional data sources and explanation of these trends, see my “Reforming Taxation to Promote Growth and Equity,” forthcoming as a Roosevelt institute working paper, which is submitted along with this written testimony. Inequality is discussed in even greater detail in my 2012 book, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, New York: W.W. Norton.

[3] See Congressional Budget Office, 2013, The Distribution of Major Tax Expenditures in the Individual Income Tax System, May, p.31, available at (accessed March 28, 2014). This figure includes the effects of the “step-up of basis at death” provision, which reduces the taxes that heirs pay on capital gains. Not including this provision, the ten-year budgetary cost of preferential treatment for capital gains and dividends is $1.34 trillion. 

Joseph Stiglitz is a Senior Fellow and Chief Economist for the Roosevelt Institute. He is a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University.

Image via Thinkstock

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Daily Digest - April 1: How to Ensure Equal Opportunity Internet Access

Apr 1, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Why the Government Should Provide Internet Access (Vox)

Ezra Klein interviews Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford, who says that internet should be regulated as a utility, just like electricity and telephone service.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Why the Government Should Provide Internet Access (Vox)

Ezra Klein interviews Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford, who says that internet should be regulated as a utility, just like electricity and telephone service.

CHARTS: The Amazing Wealth Surge For The Top 0.1 Percent (TPM)

A new study from two UC Berkley economists shows how the most affluent Americans have surged in their share of the country's wealth in recent years, reports Sahil Kapur. This study stands out because others have primarily looked at income.

New York Doormen Assert Their Right to Live in the City Where They Work (The Atlantic Cities)

With a union contract expiring for the city's doormen, negotiators are tying in to Mayor DeBlasio's fight against income inequality. Meanwhile, as Sarah Goodyear reports, a new ad campaign highlights the heroics of doormen, such as delivering babies. 

$2.13 an Hour? Why The Tipped Minimum Wage Has to Go (The Nation)

Subminimum wage workers, primarily in the restaurant industry, are more likely to live in poverty or rely on food stamps, writes Michelle Chen. That's less true, however, in states with no tipped minimum wage.

The Faces of Food Stamps (Time)

A photo series by Jeff Reidel looks at the lives of SNAP recipients, from their jobs to their efforts to stretch their food dollars. Maya Rhodan speaks with Reidel and some of his subjects.

New on Next New Deal

The ACA in Threes: The Good, The Bad and the Ways to Make it Better

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch considers some of the successes, outrages, and must-repair glitches occurring over the course of the Affordable Care Act's first open enrollment period.

Higher Education Financing Needs a Better Deal Than This

Raul Gardea, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Education, argues that the White House's latest plan for easing student debt doesn't go far enough in its reforms. Indeed, it makes some things worse.

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Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Expanding Access to Family Planning

Mar 31, 2014

Download the paper by Ellen Chesler and Andrea Flynn.

Download the paper by Ellen Chesler and Andrea Flynn.

Poverty shapes the lives of an increasing number of American women and their families and has many consequences, including high rates of unintended pregnancy. Conservatives, eager to further dismantle federal programs and defeat the new Affordable Care Act (ACA), have recently rekindled the idea that marriage promotion will reverse rising rates of poverty, unintended pregnancy, and single parenthood. To the contrary, addressing the root causes of poverty requires multiple interventions and far more generous government programs across a range of issues, particularly the expansion of reproductive health and family planning information, care, and services. This paper reviews the recent literature on women’s poverty and health and argues that accessible and high quality family planning services for poor women remain an essential component of poverty reduction. It also looks back at the history of policy debates over this question in the hope of finding a path toward renewed bi-partisan consensus.
Key Arguments:
  • Family planning is a fundamental right of women and the foundation of human security.
  • Single women in poverty head a growing percentage of U. S.  households. Addressing their needs requires multiple policy interventions, but none can work if women are denied the agency to make – and act on – well-informed reproductive health decisions.
  • U.S. subsidized family planning programs meet only 54 percent of national need. The ACA will help bridge the gap, although its promise is threatened by legal challenges to the contraceptive mandate. Women deserve insurance coverage for the contraceptive method of their choice, without qualification. 
  • Many low-income women will fall through insurance gaps. Every state should expand Medicaid. The federal government should lift Medicaid’s five-year eligibility requirement for documented immigrants and increase Title X funding to address increased demand for services.
  • We can learn from history. Research since the 1970 adoption of Title X illustrates that access to improved family planning methods promotes responsible decision-making and reduces unwanted pregnancy and abortion. By contrast, abstinence-until marriage and marriage promotion programs advanced by conservatives have failed and been discredited. 

Read "Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Expanding Access to Family Planning," by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler and Fellow Andrea Flynn.

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The Contraceptive Mandate Finally Leads America Out of the Victorian Era

Mar 31, 2014Ellen CheslerAndrea Flynn

The Affordable Care Act demonstrates an affirmative, proactive step from government for women's access to reproductive health care, but conservatives are bent on moving backwards.

The Affordable Care Act demonstrates an affirmative, proactive step from government for women's access to reproductive health care, but conservatives are bent on moving backwards.

Contraception should be understood as a fundamental right of American women and a necessary foundation of human security. If that seems controversial, consider this: 99 percent of American women approve of birth control and the vast majority use it over many years of their lives. These women deserve and must continue to demand insurance coverage for the method of their choice, without qualification. That’s why the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is so important and potentially transformative. For the first time ever, all health insurance plans, whether paid for privately or with public subsidies, are required to cover all FDA approved contraceptives at no additional cost.

Family planning is essential to securing the health and rights of women, but it is also the foundation of sound economic and social policy. Tragically, however, U.S. subsidized family planning programs currently serve just over half of those in need.

The stakes are especially high for poor women, who cannot afford the high costs of the most reliable and desirable methods and experience much higher rates of early and unwanted pregnancy as a result. Single women in poverty head a growing percentage of U.S. households. In “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Expanding Access to Family Planning,” a new white paper released today by the Roosevelt Institute, we argue that addressing their needs, and opening up opportunities to them and their children, will require multiple policy interventions, but none can work if women are denied the right and the agency to make, and act on, well-informed decisions about their own bodies.

Decades of social science research demonstrate that access to reliable and affordable family planning methods promotes responsible decision-making and reduces unwanted pregnancy and abortion. It allows women to pursue educational and employment opportunities that strengthen their families and their communities. A majority of women who participated in a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute, for example, report that birth control enables them to support themselves financially, complete their education, and get or keep a job. Other recent studies also show that providing family planning services at no cost results in more effective contraceptive use, decreased rates of unintended pregnancy, and dramatic declines in abortion rates.

Many American conservatives, however, reject these claims. They blame single mothers for America’s rising tide of poverty and inequality, not the other way around. They insist that access to sexual and reproductive health information and services exacerbates social problems by promoting promiscuity and unintended pregnancy, when in fact, the exact opposite is true. They promote abstinence-education and marriage promotion programs that have been tried before and been discredited, because they simply do not work.

This conflict was front and center last week as the U.S. Supreme Court heard 90 riveting minutes of argument in Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v Sebelius, a pair of cases brought by two privately held corporations owned by Christian conservatives. The owners claim that the ACA violates the religious freedom of employers forced to cover the costs of contraception. Much of the testimony turned on technical questions of whether corporations, as opposed to the individuals who own them, legitimately have rights to assert in this instance, and whether they may impose those rights on employees who don’t share their views. There were also important matters of scientific integrity at stake, with the plaintiffs claiming that Intrauterine Devices (IUDs) and morning-after pills constitute methods of abortion, despite overwhelming medical agreement and numerous reputable scientific studies showing that, like everyday birth control pills, they only act to prevent conception.

All but lost in the court’s conversation were larger concerns about the health and well-being of women and families – and of our society as a whole. The Supreme Court hearing comes in the wake of more than three years of persistent attacks by extreme conservative lawmakers who have already decimated publicly subsidized services in states across the country and left many low-income women without access to basic family planning and to other critical reproductive and maternal health care services.

As legal scholar and policy analyst Dorothy Roberts observed, “when access to health care is denied, it’s the most marginalized women in this country and around the world who suffer the most—women of color, poor and low-wage workers, lesbian and trans women, women with disabilities... And this case has far-reaching consequences for their equal rights. Birth control is good health care, period.”

Today, by government estimates, more than 27 million American women already benefit from the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, and 20 million more will enjoy expanded coverage when the law is fully implemented. Yet even by these optimistic assessments, many low-income women will continue to fall through insurance gaps, partly thanks to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that enables states to opt-out of Medicaid expansion mandated by the ACA. More than 3.5 million – two-thirds of poor black and single mothers, and more than half of low-wage workers – will be left without insurance in those states.

Conservative opposition to contraception is not new. As we observe in our paper, the U.S. controversy over family planning dates back to Victorian-era laws that first defined contraception as obscene and outlawed its use. Those laws carried the name of Anthony Comstock, an evangelical Christian who led a nearly 50-year crusade to root out sin and rid the country of pornography, contraceptives, and other allegedly “vile” materials that he believed promoted immorality. Sound familiar?

It took nearly a century for the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse course and guarantee American women the right to use contraception under the constitutional doctrine of privacy first enunciated in 1965. The ACA promises us even more. It places an affirmative, positive obligation on government to provide women the resources to realize our rights. The question before us is simple: Do we turn back the clock and allow a new Comstockery to prevail, or do we move ahead into the 21st century by defending the full promise of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate?

Read Ellen and Andrea's paper, "Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Expanding Access to Family Planning," here.

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

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Daily Digest - March 31: Obamacare's Big Step Forward for Women

Mar 31, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The Contraceptive Mandate Finally Leads America Out of the Victorian Era (Next New Deal)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The Contraceptive Mandate Finally Leads America Out of the Victorian Era (Next New Deal)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler and Fellow Andrea Flynn applaud the Affordable Care Act's proactive steps on women's reproductive health care, which are also key to women's economic security.

  • Roosevelt Take: Read Ellen and Andrea's new white paper, "Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: Expanding Access to Family Planning," here.

Comcast's Power Unveiled, Courtesy of Apple (Bloomberg View)

Rumors of a new content deal between Comcast and Apple demonstrate just how much control the internet service providers could have over what media Americans can access, writes Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford.

Private Charity Can't Replace Government Social Programs (LA Times)

Michael Hiltzik looks at "the voluntarism fantasy," as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal describes the idea that charity alone could replace the public safety net. Hiltzik agrees with Konczal: it's just not possible.

  • Roosevelt Take: Mike explains the origins and flaws of this fantasy in Democracy Journal.

The Minimum Wage Symposium: A Lot of Data and a Couple of Fights (The Stranger)

Anna Minard reports on the Income Inequality Symposium held in Seattle on Thursday, March 27. She quotes Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren, who emphasized how income inequality leads to political inequality.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong gave the closing remarks at the symposium.

Blueberry Lies: WSJ Spearheads Disingenuous Effort to Keep Exploiting Farm Workers (Salon)

While the Journal may claim a case of "hot goods," in which the Department of Labor seized goods produced in violation of labor law, is regulation run amok, it's a truly necessary enforcement tool, writes Catherine Ruckelshaus.

Interns Are Now Protected Against Sexual Harassment in NYC (ProPublica)

Blair Hickman reports that in response to the dismissal of an unpaid intern's sexual harassment claim against her boss, the New York City Council passed a law including interns in labor protections, regardless of pay.

Jobs and Skills and Zombies (NYT)

There is no skills gap in the U.S. job market, writes Paul Krugman, but this "zombie idea" keeps hanging around. By blaming unemployment on the workers, this creates a very real policy gap.

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In Seattle, Calls for a Higher Minimum Wage are Calls for Democracy

Mar 28, 2014Felicia Wong

Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong spoke yesterday at the Income Inequality Symposium in Seattle, where she gave the closing remarks, calling on our memories of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal to urge Seattle into action on raising the minimum wage. Her prepared remarks are below.

Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong spoke yesterday at the Income Inequality Symposium in Seattle, where she gave the closing remarks, calling on our memories of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal to urge Seattle into action on raising the minimum wage. Her prepared remarks are below.

Thank you so much, Mayor Murray, David Rolf from SEIU 775NW, Howard Wright, and all of you who have served on the Mayor’s Task Force or spent so much of your time fighting for economic growth and economic justice.

Today – we feel like a nation at the crossroads, on the brink.  But let’s remember: we’ve been here before. The story is familiar. Poverty and income inequality are on the rise throughout the United States. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have a job, you’re struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, a select few do very, very well for themselves. The President, facing a critical midterm election, addresses the nation. Raise standards for workers, he says, and he calls for laws to raise the national minimum wage, too.

I’m talking about 1938, when the President was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When FDR took office, there was no federal law guaranteeing a minimum wage for American workers – and in fact throughout the 1930s the President battled a recalcitrant and conservative Supreme Court, and conservative business establishment, on behalf of workers. In his 1938 address to Congress, FDR said such a law was long overdue. He said it was morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable for so many people in the United States to earn poverty wages. To quote Roosevelt: “Aside from the undoubted fact that the people thereby suffer great human hardship, they are unable to buy adequate food and shelter, to maintain health, or to buy their share of manufactured goods.”

That’s the key. FDR understood that the minimum wage was an issue for our hearts and for our wallets. Again and again, he returned to the point that businesses could not thrive unless workers did. Without workers, an economy cannot grow.

It was a tough fight, and FDR didn’t go it alone. He had what he called his Brains Trust -- lawmakers, academics, activists, and business leaders. Their job was to figure out economic policies under which everyone could prosper. FDR went to Congress with their proposals. The result: the Fair Labor Standards Act, a keystone of the New Deal, along with the Social Security Act. With the FLSA we got a federal minimum wage as well as the 40-hour workweek and standards for overtime pay. These underlie modern labor policy.  These are issues that are hotly debated even today.

As we’ve seen over the course of this day’s symposium, fixing our country’s inequality and wage problems will – once again – need the good ideas and expertise of a brain trust. We have been fortunate to hear from important partners such as Maud Daudon from the Chamber of Commerce, Saru Jayaraman from Restaurant Opportunities Center - United, and leaders from other cities such as Supervisor John Avalos from my hometown of San Francisco and Wilson Goode from Philadelphia.  Innovation is a team sport. FDR understood this, and so does Mayor Murray.

I work at the Roosevelt Institute in New York City.  And I am here today because Seattle is at the center of the nation’s most important fight.  

At Roosevelt, we think of ourselves as an ideas and leadership shop. I won’t claim that we ask ourselves “What Would FDR Do?” in every situation. But we certainly try to capture his spirit of innovation and collaboration in our work. We support public intellectuals like Dorian Warren, whom you’ve heard from today, and Mike Konczal, Joe Stiglitz, Annette Bernhardt, Richard Kirsch, and others. They plunge into all facets of the inequality problem – which President Obama has rightly called the defining problem of our time.  They envision solutions, including a new labor agenda for the 21st century.  This includes raising the minimum wage and providing paid sick leave, and also includes new standards for the right to organize, the enforcement of labor laws, and strategies to combat labor market segregation by race and gender.  At Roosevelt we also support some 10,000 undergraduates across the U.S. who dig in deep in their local communities – designing and fighting for policy solutions at the city level.

We at the Roosevelt Institute believe – as does everyone here – that we all do better when we all do better. But: wages have been backsliding for decades now. The typical American family makes less today than it did 25 years ago. I know we have heard a lot of statistics today, and they can seem overwhelming, but consider this for just a moment: 16 million children live in homes where their families are not sure where the next meal is coming from. Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, there are still three times as many Americans looking for work as there are job openings. And, as we’ve discussed today, new jobs aren’t good jobs.  The most recent BLS statistics forecast a low-wage trajectory through at least 2020.  Only one of the 20 occupations expected to add new jobs requires a college degree, and most of the kinds of jobs we will be creating offer low or moderate pay.

From FDR to President Obama to each and every one of us here today, whether right or left or center: we can all agree that no one should work a full-time job and worry about putting food on the table for their family.  

But this is not just about morality, not just about the “we should” and the “we shouldn’t.”  This is about economic fundamentals. When people can’t even buy groceries at the end of the month, they can’t do all of the things – go to a baseball game, go to dinner at a restaurant – that drive economic growth and make our towns and cities strong.

Now, consider the other half of the coin: times are not tough for everyone. In 2012 alone, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home more than 20 percent of all income – one of their biggest hauls since the Gilded Age. Corporate profits are at record levels, and corporations are sitting on huge cash reserves. Many will tell us that corporations and wealthy owners are the job creators, the engines of the economy.  Now, none of us begrudge real success. But the question is, if they’re doing so well, why isn’t the rest of the economy doing better?

And the answer is clear: As FDR once argued, the people – middle class, working families – are the real job creators. These aren’t just strangers, or statistics. I’m talking about our friends and family and co-workers. I’m talking about us. As more and more Americans struggle to keep up - businesses can’t function.  Companies need customers, people to spend money on those products and services. That’s why holding down wages is more than just unfair. It’s also bad economics.

Let me take a minute to tackle the arguments on the other side: that raising the minimum wage will cause unemployment, business flight, or higher prices.  But empirical research looking at decades of data – much of which we have heard today – shows that on balance raising wages has little or no negative employment effects, and in fact there is significant evidence to show that businesses – and cities and towns – flourish with higher wages, rather than lower.

This also should make sense to any of us who manage other people. Making decisions to pay employees enough so they aren’t stressed in the rest of their lives makes good business sense, and good common sense.

And, we are learning from very recent research.  I will cite just two important pieces.  The first is a massive study of 200 years of capital accumulation, incomes, and growth just published here in the United States.  The research suggests the problem is very big, and in fact lies in the structure of today’s entire global economy. Too much capital is concentrated in the hands of too few, and the global economy has gone awry.

The second piece is a recent IMF study of inequality and growth in hundreds of countries showing that many equality-enhancing redistributive policies – higher taxes, more public investment – can increase growth. Win-wins are possible.  

So these findings should give us courage. And should push us to act – because recalibrating the minimum wage is one very big step towards fixing the broken economic system and promoting growth in ways that will work for everyone.

Let me be clear: raising the minimum wage isn’t anti-democratic, isn’t anti-capitalist, isn’t anti-free market.  FDR saved capitalism from itself.  That is what you are trying to do here today.

It’s no surprise that we’re having this conversation in Seattle. Your city is a great hub of American business and social innovation. This city has brought to life trends and technologies, from Starbucks coffee to Excel spreadsheets, which revolutionize the way we live. And you in Seattle know that people are at the center of that innovation. Companies like Costco have built their business models on paying decent wages and benefits, retaining valued employees, and fostering strong communities.

It’s not a top-down, trickle-down proposition. Economies grow, as our friend Nick Hanauer said this morning, from the middle out.  You have seen it work in Seattle, and that’s why Seattle is the right incubator for the sound labor policies that will shape the American economy of the future.

By voting for a 15 dollar an hour wage floor, Seattle can move the entire region’s economy forward.  You can also set the trend for the whole country – in addition to possible federal legislation, at least eight states are considering minimum wage increases this year. You can show all of us how to build the kind of economy that grows, that is stable, and that spreads prosperity broadly.  It is a virtuous cycle.  

If adopted nationwide, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the raise in the minimum wage proposed by President Obama could affect more than 28 million people and lift many of them out of poverty. 28 million people. At a time when the American Dream of opportunity for all is rapidly fading, those are 28 million reasons to support this proposal.

Beyond the potential economic impact, this policy would show what government can achieve when it responds to the needs of working families. As Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Individual companies, as great as they are, can’t do this alone.  Our fates are linked, and we have to act together.  By raising the minimum wage to fifteen-dollars-an-hour, Seattle can choose democracy and start to reverse the trends that have been crushing the middle class.

Let me close by urging the members of Seattle’s City Council to approve the 15 dollar an hour minimum wage. And as FDR told his own supporters, it is up to all of us to make them do it. A lot has changed about our country since the days of the New Deal, but one thing remains the same: Progress is possible when we commit to it and fight for it. Now is the time for us to decide what kind of economy, what kind of government, and what kind of future we want for ourselves. Now is the time for Seattle to lead the way. Thank you.

Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.


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Daily Digest - March 28: How to Be a Better Anchor

Mar 28, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

New Student Initiative Asks Anchor Institutions to Rethink Their Communities (

The Democracy Collaborative interviews Alan Smith, Roosevelt Institute's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives, to discuss the Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities initiative, which uses the Collaborative’s Anchor Dashboard to examine how institutions like colleges affect local economies.

  • Roosevelt Take: Alan explains the ideas behind the Rethinking Communities initiative, and why this project makes sense for Millennials.

The PAC to End All PACs (Politico Magazine)

David Freedlander speaks with Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Soros about his work on campaign finance reform. Soros says his aim is to help ensure lack of money doesn't shut candidates out.

Domino's Franchisees Settle Wage Theft Investigation In New York For $448,000 (HuffPo)

Dave Jamieson reports on the second major wage theft settlement in as many weeks out of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office.

A Nation of Takers? (NYT)

Nicholas Kristof writes that there are, in fact, public welfare programs that are wasteful: subsidies for private planes and yachts, subsidies to hedge funds in the form of "carried interest," and the like.

New on Next New Deal

In Seattle, Calls for a Higher Minimum Wage are Calls for Democracy

In her remarks to the Seattle Income Inequality Symposium, Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong says that we should raise the minimum wage for the same reasons that President Roosevelt first implemented it.

Insurance Pays for Health Care. Who’s Providing It?

Following a congressional briefing last week, Roosevelt Institute Communications Associate Rachel Goldfarb emphasizes the distinction between insurance and care providers as a key reason to keep publicly funded family planning.

  • Roosevelt Take: Read Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn's remarks from the briefing here.

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Daily Digest - March 27: Playing in the Big Leagues of the Labor Debate

Mar 27, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Northwestern Players Get Union Vote (ESPN)

The Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Northwestern's football players qualify as employees, in part because their scholarships are tied to performance, reports Brian Bennett.

Connecticut Senate Approves Bill to Raise Minimum Wage to $10.10 (Reuters)

The state legislature's lower house is expected to pass the bill as well, reports Richard Weizel, which would make Connecticut's minimum wage the highest of any state's.

Who Needs a Boss? (NYT)

Worker-owned cooperative businesses could be a key way to shift wealth from investors to labor and reduce economic inequality, writes Shaila Dewan. And such co-ops are on the rise again in the U.S.

Payday Loans Aren’t the Problem. The Problem is Poverty. (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis argues that when discussing regulations for predatory payday lending, it's important not to lose sight of the root cause. In the long run, fighting poverty will do far more than increasing regulations.

Taxpayer Subsidies and Too-Big-to-Fail Banks (NYT)

Teresa Tritch suggests that the Federal Reserve of New York's study on "too big to fail" ends without clarity, since the data only goes through 2009, before the biggest post-crisis reforms were even passed into law.

Piketty's Inequality Story in Six Charts (The New Yorker)

John Cassidy pulls six charts from Thomas Pikkety's book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, to explain the book's narrative of inequality through shares of income and wealth of various groups.

New on Next New Deal

National Labor Law in the United States: Scanty Protections for Organizing Leave Out Many Workers

In the third post in his series on his new report on labor reform, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch examines the weaknesses of American labor law, particularly the National Labor Relations Act.


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How the Weakening of American Labor Led to the Shrinking of America’s Middle Class

Mar 26, 2014Richard Kirsch

This is the second in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled “The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Ensure Prosperity for All”.

This is the second in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled “The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Ensure Prosperity for All”. The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class.  Today’s post describes the corporate effort beginning in the 1970s to grab more of the nation’s wealth, at the expense of workers.

When General Motors President Charles Wilson told a U.S. Senate Committee in 1953 that what was good for General Motors was good for the country, he captured an era in which the good wages and benefits earned by the workers at U.S. manufacturing companies powered the nation’s economy and built the middle class.

But sixty years later, what is good for the GM of our day – Walmart – is clearly not good for America, as a comparison between the biggest private employers of both eras underscores. While the American auto industry operated on the premise of one of its founders, Henry Ford, that workers should get paid enough to buy its costly products, Walmart operates on the premise that its workers should get paid so little that the only place they can afford to shop is at their low-priced employer.

A General Motors plant was the anchor of a community. It became the hub of a supply line for auto parts manufactured by other unionized companies. Its managers and factory workers earned enough to shop at local businesses and pay taxes to support public services. They had the resources and time to participate in the life of the community. They expected to stay with GM for their entire careers and to retire on a pension earned while working at the firm.

How very different from Walmart. When a Walmart opens up, local businesses close. Wages decline throughout the community. Many of the items in a Walmart store are made outside of the country, part of a global supply chain built in search of lower wages in order to meet Walmart’s low pricing demands. Workers often earn so little that they qualify for government benefits. Many Walmart employees are hired part-time or as temps. They lack job security and retirement security, other than the small Social Security checks their wages will accrue.

There are stark differences between prospects for organizing workers into a union between the auto factories of the 20th century and the Walmarts of today. The GM plant in which workers staged the famous sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan in 1937 employed 47,000 workers. The average Walmart store employs 300 workers. It would be too expensive for an auto manufacturer to shutter a factory threatened by a strike. But when workers voted to unionize a store in Canada, Walmart closed down that location, a small loss for a company with 4,200 stores.

How did the transition from the manufacturing economy to the Walmart economy occur? The breakdown of the union and government enforced New Deal social compact, in which major corporations shared their profits with their workers, began in the mid-1970s. The resurgence of economies around the globe and the shocks of oil price increases threatened the dominance and profitability of American business. The U.S. began bleeding manufacturing jobs, a loss of 2.4 million jobs between 1979 and 1983.

U.S. corporations responded in a number of ways. One was to insist that, in the words of a 1974 Business Week editorial, “Some people will have to do with less…so that big business can have more.”

Corporations increased their focus on rewarding shareholders with short-term profits, rather than investing in their workers or in long-run growth. General Electric, for example, slashed its workforce and cut investment in research, and its stock price soared.

When Chrysler faced bankruptcy in 1979, the United Auto Workers agreed to an end to annual wage increases tied to productivity. These concessions were then extended to unionized workers at Ford and General Motors. As Harold Meyerson writes, “Henceforth, as the productivity of the American economy increased, the wages of the American economy would not increase with it.”

Corporations also began exploiting weaknesses in U.S. labor law, which allowed corporations to hire replacements for striking workers. In 1981, a period of high unemployment, President Ronald Reagan fired the nation’s air-traffic controllers for going out on strike. Major firms in a host of industries followed Reagan’s precedent: they demanded that their workers accept lower wages, which precipitated strikes, and then hired replacement workers at lower wages. The strike - the central tool that workers had used to win their fair share of economic growth - virtually evaporated over the next few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, workers staged an average of 286 strikes a year. That declined to 83 strikes a year in the 1980s and finally to 20 a year since 2000.

In the early 1970s, after major consumer and environmental legislation was enacted by Congress over the objections of big business, Corporate trade associations moved their offices to the nation’s capital and made big investments in lobbying and campaign contributions. The policies they pushed included gutting trade protections for American manufactured goods. This eased the way for the loss of 900,000 textile and apparel jobs in the 1990s and 760,000 electronics manufacturing jobs in the past two decades.

Corporations pressed for the appointment of national labor law regulators who were antagonistic to unions. The combination of weak labor laws and hostile regulators enabled businesses to resist union organizing more aggressively. Unions lost members, and their political clout declined relative to surging corporate political power. Their efforts to win labor law reform fizzled, even in Democratic administrations from Carter to Clinton to Obama.

As major banks and Wall Street firms went public, they too became focused on short-term profits. They drove the businesses to which they loaned money or invested in to maximize their short-term profits by cutting pay and benefits and by firing workers. A hot private equity industry saddled businesses with huge debts and drove firms to slash labor costs.

While the labor movement as a whole was slow to respond, there were some major unions that refocused resources on organizing new members. These unions won some victories in a few sectors, notably health care and in the public sector. But the gains were not enough to reverse the decline of union membership in traditional strongholds like manufacturing and construction. Today, unionized workers make up 11% of the workforce, the lowest level in 97 years. With only 7% of private sector workers in unions, the labor movement can no longer play an effective role in raising workers’ wages throughout the economy.

American workers remain among the most productive in the world; productivity in major sectors like manufacturing continues to rise. But in industry after industry, the share of revenues going to wages has dropped, while the share going to profits has soared. Labor’s share of national income has plummeted, while the share taken by capital is at a record high. If median annual income had kept up with productivity, it would now be $86,426. But the current median income is actually $50,054, the lowest it has been since 1996 when adjusted for inflation.

Today, unemployment is stuck at high levels. Millions of workers are trapped in part-time jobs or jobs for which they are over-qualified. Most of the new jobs that have slowly emerged after the recession are low-wage jobs, but the proportion of high-wage jobs is also on the rise. It is the share of middle-wage jobs that is shrinking.

Economies will always face challenges. But the crushing of America’s middle-class over the past forty years was not inevitable. It was the result of decisions made directly by corporate America to advance public policies that enabled them to take more of America’s wealth and to share less with American workers. One of the most significant of these corporate strategies was to weaken the ability of unionized workers to demand a fair share of the nation’s growing wealth, whether they demanded their fair share at the bargaining table or in the halls of Congress.

Rebuilding the engine of our economy - the middle class - requires us to re-imagine how organized workers can once again exercise power to recreate an America in which prosperity is broadly shared.

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Daily Digest - March 26: Worker Misclassification Leads to Missing Wages

Mar 26, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The Death of an Employer Scam (TAP)

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

The Death of an Employer Scam (TAP)

Workers who are misclassified as independent contractors lose out on wages, benefits, and workplace protections - but Harold Meyerson says recent crackdowns could signal the end of industry-wide misclassification.

Unemployed, and Heading Toward Foreclosure (MSNBC)

More than half of the long-term unemployed live in owner-occupied homes, reports Suzy Khimm, and now they're struggling to keep their homes with no income and less-than-successful safety net programs.

America's Class System Across The Life Cycle (PolicyShop)

Matt Bruenig borrows charts from a wide variety of sources to look at how income inequality effects full lives, from childhood stress levels, to college completion rates, to age of death.

The Right's New "Welfare Queens": The Middle Class (The New Yorker)

George Packer says that Republican Senators at a recent committee hearing preferred to pin the economy's problem on adults choosing not to work instead of income inequality.

Democrats, as Part of Midterm Strategy, to Schedule Votes on Pocketbook Issues (NYT)

Jeremy W. Peters and Michael D. Shear report that the Senate Democrats' goals are less about passing legislation to fight inequality than getting Republicans on record opposing these bills.

U.S. Banks Enjoy 'Too-Big-to-Fail' Advantage: Fed Study (Reuters)

Emily Stephenson and Jonathan Spicer report on a new series of research papers by Federal Reserve economists that confirm that "too big to fail" advantages continued into 2009, after the financial crisis.

Will a For-Profit Degree Help You Get a Job? (The Atlantic)

Graduates of 72 percent of for-profit college career programs earn less than high school dropouts, reports Sophie Quinton. That's led to concerns that such schools waste federal financial aid, and calls for tighter standards.

New on Next New Deal

How the Weakening of American Labor Led to the Shrinking of America’s Middle Class

In the second post in his series describing his new report on labor organizing reform, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch looks at the era in which corporations began to shift profits away from workers.

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