What Inequality Means

Because of our terrible history of slavery, we cannot separate inequality from race. Slavery seems like a long time ago, but evidence shows that all kinds of repression are very slow to heal all over the world. That said, when we talk about inequality, we also speak of class, which affects all races.

Inequality begins with a child born to poor parents, which means in a bad city neighborhood or rural area. Poverty is everywhere. Homes are rundown and unsafe. Crime is common. Jobs are scarce. Schools are underfunded. The police are abusive. It’s not his fault. He just got here.

Each of these factors works its unhappy effects on him in turn. The child may be born underweight. He may be malnourished as an infant. These are classic signs of poverty that can affect him his entire life. If his mother failed to learn the dangers of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs to her unborn infant, he may even be brain damaged. If there is lead in his environment he probably will be brain damaged. None of these things are his fault.

Inequality begins with a child
born to poor parents.

Even if his brain is normal, school may be chaos because of those who were brain damaged, or whose home life is chaotic and abusive. The school is probably underfunded, because we fund rich districts highest, from property tax on the propertied. If there is never enough food at home, learning will be difficult. There may be dangers out of school because of local crime. As he passes into later grades, he may be bullied or threatened.

This is what inequality means. It means that no matter what a kid is like, no matter how bright or talented, getting a good education begins with difficulty and gets worse. Everything conspires against him. Even when he does everything right, he might still be robbed, beat up, shot, or assaulted by police.

Inequality is a policy choice.

But suppose he does manage to survive all these dangers, and graduates from high school with good grades. He is a kid who should go on to college, but this may or may not be possible, depending on his family situation. The new graduate may have no choice but to go to work.

But there are often few jobs in such places, and those that do exist are often low wage and part time. There is no future in such jobs, and they cannot lift you from poverty.

That’s what inequality means.

Inequality is a policy choice. We can either try to arrange our society to encourage equality, or we can do what we’ve been doing for the last few generations: give all the money to people who have absolutely no need of it. Giving it to the rich dooms millions to remain poor all their lives.

Equality cannot be earned by the poor.
Hard work has nothing to do with it.

Equality cannot be earned by the poor, particularly at minimum wage. Hard work has nothing to do with it. Equality has to come about as the result of deliberate governmental policies encouraging equality. Further, given the gross inequality that characterizes life in the US today, equality cannot be achieved in reasonable time by anything less than policy designed to overcompensate for inequality, because inequality has grown steadily worse over the past four decades as a result of deliberate policy choices.

A report in the NYT offers hope that a policy of moving the poor to better locations can help them rise from poverty, especially in the next generation. This is new and encouraging information. The trouble is, we don’t know exactly what a better location consists of. The policy doesn’t work very well in some cities and neighborhoods, and we don’t know why.

Inequality has nothing to do
with welfare benefits.

Life is a daily struggle for the poor. Their lives may be completely upended by any of a number of events over which they have no control. Billionaire Wall Street criminals brought many families down in 2009. Someone in the family may have a cancer that, without national health care, drains away every dollar, and postpones educational plans for at least a generation. They may be killed by crossfire, or simply unable to find work after many months of searching.

Republican presidential hopefuls think the poor have no incentive to find work because welfare benefits are so generous. They believe all these millions of people who can’t find a decent job have to do is buckle down and quit being lazy. Their belief is simply not true. You can’t work your way out of poverty with a part-time, low-wage job even if you find one, and welfare benefits are bare-bones and temporary.

Many people who have initiated programs to help such people have found their charges frustrated and discouraged when, day after day, week after week, they are unable to find any work at all, with no evidence they might eventually succeed. Almost all of us would lose heart under the circumstances. Millions of people are trapped in low wage jobs that mean they will always be poor, no matter how hard they work.

Our policy is to pretend that poverty
is the fault of those trapped in it from birth.

Inequality is a deliberate policy choice, one that has put the richest country the world has ever seen on an ever-worsening downward path, while the rich accumulate ever more money that is absolutely useless to them, and the party of the rich does everything it can to make it worse.


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