“As long as our economy and political systems prioritize profit without considering who is profiting, who is being shut out, we will perpetuate this inequality. So, we cannot stop at criminal justice system reform. We must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression wherever we find it.”

This is a quote from a Minnesota member of Congress, and many others are saying similar things these days. They are met with jeers and criticism and accused of being socialists and of wanting to tear down the United States to replace it with something entirely foreign. But in fact, the United States once had much greater economic equality and enjoyed the many benefits that go with it.

Since the 1970s, the United States has had a steady decline in economic equality. This can be objectively measured by earnings. In 1974, the 90th percentile earners – the people who earn more than all but 10 percent of other earners – had 8.5 times the income of the lowest 10th percentile; in 2018, the multiple had grown to 12.6. Another measure is the Gini coefficient, which shows how income is dispersed in a population; a coefficient moving closer to 1.0 shows income concentrating in a smaller group. Our Gini coefficient moved from 0.395 in 1974 to 0.486 in 2018, a 23 percent slide toward greater concentration and less dispersion.

Certainly, the 1970s were not halcyon days, but they did mark the beginning of a 50-year trend toward less economic equality. The trend may have stemmed from weakening of unions, advances in technology, globalization of commerce or rise of service industries. These explanations downplay the pivotal role of choices made by government, business and community. Where we stand today is largely shaped by us, which means we can choose anew.

Motivating us to make new choices are the many downsides to economic inequality. Compared to high-inequality countries, in more equal countries:

• People live longer.

• There is a lower rate of violent death (homicide and suicide).

• Fewer people struggle with mental illness – ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

• Children do better in math and reading. (Haven’t we all heard how the U.S. lags in science, technology, engineering and math?)

• A lower proportion of people are in prison.

Many social ills are more prevalent in countries that have less equality. We can see this in the United States: We have the associated problems and we have them to a greater degree. For example, the U.S. has the highest level of economic inequality compared to other developed countries and the highest likelihood of a person going hungry. In the U.S., a person was almost twice as likely to be food insecure after the Great Recession (15 percent) as he would have been in Canada during the Great Recession (7.7 percent). We seem to have made a tradeoff to open a pathway to wealth by creating a society that tolerates people starving.

Some might argue that giving food to the hungry deprives them of motivation to strive. Some hold that making social supports adequate and accessible is tantamount to socialism; and socialism kills individual initiative and dilutes the reward for striving. This argument crumbles in the face of clear evidence: Socialist countries’ children strive more and succeed more than children in the United States, measured by achieving a higher income than their parents. A child born in Canada or in many European countries is more likely to rise in economic status in his lifetime than a child born in the United States.

Other countries – some with socialist forms of government – are far more successful at creating an environment in which people can rise in economic status. Having food easily available would not make us a socialist country. It would make us a country with more of its people able to seek their potential.

The people calling for change are not calling for the country to be something other than the United States. They are calling for it to be the best United States it can be, and based upon our own past experience, has the potential to be. In a more equal society, we would have many more people thriving, and that is what makes a country truly great.

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