Isabel E. Hendrix-Jenkins
Montgomery Blair High School
Silver Spring, MD
2nd Place, Maryland
Income Disparity in the United States: A Brutal Cycle of Deprivation
On graduation day, senior Andrew Delacruz shares something with millions of other American high school students. He hasn’t applied to or been accepted by any colleges. He hasn’t sought out or been hired for any real job. He hasn’t been given a stepping stone into society, something to launch him into a productive, self-sustaining role in the American economy. Andrew is caught up in a powerful cycle of poverty and deprivation that keeps more and more Americans shackled to the ground level of the economy and society. Meanwhile, the families of some of Andrew’s other classmates continue to climb, accumulating more and more capital, some joining the top ten percent of Americans that control seventy five percent of the nation’s wealth (Strachan). The rich are rising higher and the poor are spiraling lower in a disturbing pattern that threatens the stability and cohesiveness of our economy, political system, and society. And for young people like Andrew Delacruz, the injustice of income disparity is not just a dry economic observation—it is a dark, harsh reality.
The issue of income disparity is entwined with all areas of society—education, politics, business, immigration, infrastructure, housing, and more. Its causes are numerous and subtle, often broad trends instead of specific events. Global competition in manufacturing has led many companies to outsource jobs away from the poorer demographics that need them most. A lagging education system and skyrocketing college tuitions limit many American’s ability to get the schooling necessary for a secure job. But the fact that the top one percent of Americans controls forty percent of the United States’ wealth represents a much deeper shift in American society and challenges many assumptions about social mobility and basic equality in our nation (Strachan). This is a broad problem, but there are specific actions that will help alleviate and then eliminate it.
One of these is to restore an often forgotten aspect of high school education. Schools today are geared toward readying students for a general four year college experience—the vocational training programs once so popular in American high schools have all but disappeared. These specific courses train a student in one field or trade, from plumbing to drafting to computer programming. This training is the key to providing low income students with jobs and helping poor families break the cycle that is widening income disparity so dramatically in the United States. Research has found that only 60 percent of low income students will finish high school, compared to 90 percent of their wealthier classmates (Southern California Public Radio). Soaring college tuition cuts short the education of these students even further. But when implemented in high schools, vocational training can give aimless students the direct pathway to a career that can begin as soon as they graduate. The United States has also seen a shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing and other areas, so these jobs would be available and needed.
Consider this alternate reality for Andrew, a student without direction or options who represents so many others. A federal policy initiative directed government funding to the states and helped restore a vocational training program in Andrew’s high school. A teacher took notice of Andrew’s skill with his hands and encouraged him to take a course in welding and metalworking. A school partnership with a local manufacturer allowed him on-site experience, and later, a job opportunity. Now he is coming out of high school with a specialized training in a field where there is a shortage of skilled workers. Andrew has a job, and a steady paycheck. Duplicate his story a million times or so, and you see the income gap begin to narrow.
If education is one area that greatly impacts income disparity, the business of hiring and firing is another. Unions could be another key to stabilizing employment among the nation’s poorest. Recent research by the Economic Policy Institute shows that the rise of income inequality directly correlates with the decline of the power and number of unions (Colin). Analysis of economic data shows that strong unions contributed to the economic boom after World War II and up to the 1970s, when income disparity was a much milder problem. Researcher Colin Gordon explains that “the passage in 1935 of the National Labor Relations Act, which protected and encouraged unions, sparked a wave of unionization that led to three decades of shared prosperity and what some call the Great Compression: when the share of national income taken by the very rich was cut by one-third” (Gordon). Let’s do this again. State governments must lift restrictions on the collective bargaining power of labor unions. The poorest in America hold the jobs that most often benefit by unionization—if we can increase the earnings in that demographic, the income gap will narrow considerably. Another analysis by the Center for American Progress found that “if the incomes of the union rank-and-file rose by just one-tenth, middle-class incomes would go up $1,479 per year, even for middle-class families who aren’t union members” (Harkinson). Restoring rights to unions helps American workers and those most vulnerable to economic changes.
English essayist Matthew Arnold said two centuries ago that economic inequality “materializes our upper class, vulgarizes our middle class, brutalizes our lower class” (Flürscheim ). The government must take steps to equalize society in an era of stark polarization between rich and poor—the United States is a home for everyone, whether they make $25,000 a year or $2,500,000. The President and Congress need to join together to establish vocational training programs in high schools to get low income people in stable careers that lift them out of the cycle of poverty and stop the income gap from widening further. State government must then allow labor unions the power to keep these people in those jobs and earning a fair income. When people have jobs, they have healthcare, housing, and money to spend. They have stability, happiness, and a productive role in our nation and the world. Let’s create an economy built on a balanced, stable society of earners, spenders, and workers. Let’s do it for today’s graduates entering the job market. For families burdened by low paychecks and high bills. For children destined to be poor just like their parents. Let’s do it for Andrew.
Frank, Robert. Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich. Crown Publishing Group, 2008. Print.
Flürscheim, Michael. The Economic and Social Problem. Jefferson Publishing Company, 1909. Print.
Gordon, Colin. "Union decline and rising inequality in two charts." Working Economic. Economic Policy Institute, 15 2012. Web. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
Harkinson, Josh. "Major Study Links Decline of Unions to Rising of Income Inequality." Mother Jones. 11 2011: n. page. Print.
Hennessy, Trish. "How to fix income inequality: The experts weigh in." Rabble, 8 2012. Web. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
Noah, Timothy. "Revive Labor’s Power." New York Times 19 October 2012, n. pag. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
"POLL: For low-income families, is vocational training better than a college education?." Education. Southern California Public Radio: 15 2012. Radio.
Strachan, Maxwell. "15 Facts About U.S. Income Inequality That Everyone Should Know." Business. Huffington Post, 4 2011. Web. 3 Nov 2012.
"Too narrow, too soon? America’s misplaced disdain for vocational education." Economist 17 June 2010, n. pag. Print.
"US Losing Cutting Edge in Education, Skills." Education News. N.p., 27 2012. Web. 29 Oct 2012.
Yglesias, Matthew, and Tyler Cowen. Interview by Steve Inskeep. "Is Income Inequality A Problem In The U.S.?."National Public Radio. 29 2011. Radio.