Pride and Equality: The Real Discussion
America’s inequality and social immobility problem has gotten so out of hand that even the mainstream seems to finally be talking about it.
It’s trivial to drop statistics on the subject. A recent Pew Research article published in December of last year by Drew DeSilver found that American inequality “has reached levels not seen since 1928”. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, real median household income in 2012 was $51,017, but in 1999 it was $56,080. For those of you not gifted with an education that includes statistical analysis, what that means is that, for half of the population, thirteen years saw their household’s income decline even as the economy grew on average. The rich did indeed get richer throughout the new millennium, but it wasn’t just the poor getting poorer, it was fully half of Americans.
What’s really remarkable is that the historical income tables of the Census Bureau shows that the average income declined even after 2008, during the beginning of a nominal recovery. Meanwhile, in 2012, 22.46% of the total pre-tax income of the United States was held by just 1% of people, as compared to 18.12% in 2009. In 1978, it was 8.95%. So in a mere thirty-six years, less than two generations, we’ve seen the top 1% suddenly make more than twice as much.
Okay, there’s other ways you can phrase all this. It’s possible to say, for example, that in terms of the likelihood of people to substantially change their economic standing (either moving up or down), this is a period in American history with some of the least opportunity for upward mobility.
Or we can point out that, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “The 2014 two-bedroom Housing Wage is $18.92. This national average is more than two-and-a-half times the federal minimum wage, and 52 percent higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent”. Now, the “Fair Market Rent” is a metric that is actually somewhat complicated, but what that does mean is that the options for a full-time minimum wage worker to afford an apartment that is not somehow adjusted for income or is cheap for some other reason (such as being in a bad location) are quite limited. People are finding themselves moving in with their parents or sharing rooms far more often as a result of this inability to afford housing. I personally had to share rooms for many of the years I went to college
But all too often, we collectively like to use statistics to hide our feelings and insecurities behind. Researchers, activists and bystanders alike can use the seeming objectivity of numbers to protect ourselves from having to admit the hard truths that ring in our souls.
The fact is, inequality isn’t a problem merely because of some number on a Gini index or some other measure of inequality being too high. Social immobility isn’t a problem because there’s some arbitrary numerical threshold of the society that should change their socioeconomic status every twenty years.
Our present state of massive, pernicious, inexcusable inequality is an assault on the pride of almost every person working in this country.
See, take that statistic above about how hard it is to find an apartment for someone with a minimum-wage job. What that means is that even someone who can manage to find a good deal on a space is likely to barely afford their shelter. They are going to be working a good portion of their waking hours in order to come home to a cheap space, unable to save meaningfully for their retirement or to try to go to school to better their lot.
I recently watched a film from the New Deal era called “We Work Again”. It was produced by a Works Progress Administration film team, promoting that administration’s work in finding opportunities for African-Americans to work. It opens thusly: “Only a few years ago, we were a discouraged people, because we were the first to lose our jobs when Old Man Depression came along and we were the last to get them back. We struggled vainly to regain our bearings while depression, fear and failure stalked the nation”.
In other words, the WPA wasn’t just giving people the chance to work an honest hour for an honest wage. It was giving Americans their pride back. The state of the unemployed person, in the wisdom of that era, was one that was hurtful and intolerable even if the unemployed person had no fear of having the heat turned off and no fear of being unable to find a place to sleep.
When I have been unemployed and out of college in the past, I felt that I had to exert a daily psychic toil to keep my confidence up. Most people tell me that I’m one of the most confident people they meet, and yet I still felt like I was ashamed to share the fact that I wasn’t doing something productive. Like Sisyphus with his rock, I was making great efforts just to seemingly return to the same place the next morning.
Just having a job at Subway or Target, places I worked, helped in this regard. But once one has a job in an entry level position, not being able to advance forward brings back those some niggling doubts. They become a yawning pit that we face when we look in the mirror every morning. “Am I only good enough for this?”, we ask.
And, let me be clear: As much as it may suck sometimes to work service jobs, I appreciated most of the jobs that I’ve had, even entry-level ones. I was happy to be making sandwiches. I was happy to be checking people out. I truly believe that good customer service is a duty. People in a customer service position, I say quite often, are able to turn someone’s day around if they do a good job… or a poor one. There’s pride in being trusted with closing someone’s franchise location for the night, being trusted with their livelihood. There’s pride in giving someone a meal and knowing that they will enjoy eating it. But how much better can one get at making a Subway or Togo’s or Quizno’s sandwich? How much better can someone become at being a checker at Target or a courtesy clerk at Safeway? What room is there for a person to advance and grow?
Even today, as I manage to pay my bills writing, I still have the feeling that I’m not advancing further, not using my capabilities, not sharing what I have to offer.
I have spent many nights worried about making ends meet, worried about how I’ll manage to put together the money for rent or tuition. But those nights, as unpleasant as they were, were as nothing compared to the feeling that I wasn’t working as hard as I could.
It’s not just those who are unemployed who don’t get the chance to be proud. Someone who is working at menial jobs in order to eke out a living for their whole lives never gets the chance to show off what their brain and hearts can do. They never have their spiritual, emotional, mental and physical capabilities tested and pushed toward a greater goal.
In every one of my friends and the people I meet and care about who has struggled to get by, I have seen the same look in the eyes like a dog avoiding her mistress’ gaze.
It’s not just the social programming we all endure that tells us to make more money, to buy more consumer products. People can ignore that programming: I’ve seen it. I’ve seen my parents live a lifestyle far below their means because they believed in not exhausting the planet’s resources. I have also seen families for whom every maxed-out credit card is a testament to the inability of the breadwinner in the family to provide for the people he cares about.
No, it’s the feeling that they’re not good enough, not smart enough, and not diligent enough. It is the resentment that comes from never being given a chance or an opportunity to show off one’s acumen.
And what about the artistic opportunities people have? Even with the democratization of the creation of content that we are seeing thanks to wonderful (if sometimes flawed) services like YouTube, Twitch and Kickstarter, it is still incredibly difficult for someone to get by while they are trying to build a following and expand their art. How many young people have great ideas and great projects that they could afford to start, if they weren’t seeing double-digit employment or working two jobs to scrape by?
We in a society should care that our neighbors are being given the chance to hold their heads high. If someone squanders those opportunities, then perhaps it is acceptable to hold them accountable for that, though even then forgiveness and recognition of our own weaknesses would seem to guide us to be gentle.
But structural inequality and the lack of social mobility in our society mean that people are running a Red Queen’s race ragged, moving as fast as they can and working as fast as they can to barely stay afloat. This isn’t just a state of perpetual stress: It’s a state where one is seeing one’s best efforts keep one in exactly the same place. It’s a daily psychic assault on who we are and what we believe we’re capable of.
In the New Deal, there were at least some in government and in society who understood that the chance to work, to move up the ladder, to learn and develop one’s capabilities, wasn’t just an economic necessity for productivity: It was a human need. Psychologists since Abraham Maslow have known that occupational development, the opportunity for people to solve problems and to win the respect of others through good work, is as much a human need as clean water and warm shelter.
Until we can start talking about inequality as a daily pain, not just a fact of economic deprivation but an unjust denial of one’s capabilities, we won’t make headway against it. Work and opportunities for real growth (and that includes growth in income) give us dignity. In a society as affluent as our own, it should not be so difficult to grow in our vocations, in our passions, and in our ability to provide for our loved ones.