PORTLAND – An article about income inequality, published in The Atlantic in September, received little fanfare or comment, but it seems to highlight interesting challenges caused by our current societal trends.
Author Jordan Weissman cites a study by two professors that illustrates that the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans is worse today than it was in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution.
Several other studies have also highlighted the widening gap between the rich and poor, but what are the larger implications of being unequal, and what does it mean not to engage in a conversation around this topic?
Inequality is more than a widening gap between rich and poor, and it is more than a movement chanting, “We are the 99 percent.” The widening gap also translates into significant human hardship.
To see this impact, we need only read the recent unemployment numbers for Maine. Between 2006 and 2008, unemployment in Maine averaged 4.7 percent, and between 2010 and 2012, our rate has averaged 7.6 percent.
By comparison, the richest citizens of our country have seen their overall percentage of total wealth increase from 30 percent to nearly 40 percent from 2006 to 2012. In Maine, the data suggests that the richest 20 percent of our population have incomes that are 6.2 times greater than our poorest 20 percent, and that number has also risen, albeit not as fast as the U.S. rate.
The near-doubling of the unemployment rate in Maine belies the countless untold experiences of those in the unemployed 7.6 percent.
Little is known about how many of these families were forced into living with relatives, making tough family decisions about access to food, how to care for an uninsured child and long-term economic stability. Even less is known about family conversations with children about deferring college ambitions or abandoning extracurricular activities because of financial hardship. Still even less is known about the impact on a family of the constant stress of financial uncertainty.
These longer-term impacts of not being equal are compelling. Lack of appropriate diet and irregular eating habits have been linked to childhood obesity and long-term health risks. Proper nutrition is also clearly linked to a child’s overall ability to succeed in school.
Access to regular, affordable health care has been cited in countless studies as a positive indicator in school achievement and overall well-being. Financial uncertainly within families is often cited as a contributing factor in family conflicts, including cases of domestic violence. As such, our current income gap has denied a significant portion of our citizenry the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Being unequal also means less opportunity for social movement in our society. American culture is predicated on the belief that all people have equal opportunity to become successful, even be president of the United States if they so choose.
This sense that we are all equal somehow erodes quickly, given the gap between those who are presented with opportunities of full employment, access to quality education, nutrition and health care, and those who do not have equal access to these things.
The ability to freely pursue the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” clause in the Declaration of Independence has become reserved for those who have the wealth and resources to access the key components which lead to success.
As American culture continues to expand, the prognosis for a reversal of this gap-widening trend is not positive. If history is our guide, societies that experienced significant income inequality have struggled to survive and prosper. As the wealth concentrates and solidifies at the top, it translates into less political appetite to confront institutional policies and challenges that make us unequal.
In recent months, the debate surrounding this widening income gap has largely been relegated to academics and researchers. It is time that we, as a state, engage in open and frank discussions surrounding the long-term impact of what has happened and what the larger implications to our state and our nation are as we continue this trend.
The debate should be free and open and include all aspects of the issue, from individual income and the concepts of “how much is enough” to how we fund social service and social welfare programs for those “who don’t have enough.” In the end, we will not agree that we have become unequal, but we will begin the process of discussing our inequality and its longer-term impacts on all of our citizens.
Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin, Ph.D., is associate professor of social work at the University of New England.