John Seamus Kirkpatrick
School Without Walls Senior High School
3rd Place, District of Columbia
Addressing the Problem of Income Disparity in the United States
Equality is a human right. In fact, it is the foundation of all human rights. American history has been defined by the struggles for equality for women, racial minorities, religious groups, and homosexuals. Today, the most prevalent and debilitating form of inequality is income disparity. Income levels among citizens of the United States are the most unequal they have been since the Great Depression [Lowrey]. This disparity is the cause of soaring poverty while GDP per capita is at an all-time high. Minimizing income disparity, or at least halting its growth, is a mission as great in its scope and importance as overcoming colonial rule, slavery, and segregation. Income disparity can be checked by universal education, ending discrimination, an effective social welfare system, fair taxation, regulation of the financial sector, and limiting of hereditary fortunes. These actions would realistically produce lasting and effective equality in the United States.
Total income equality has never been achieved, is likely impossible, and may not even be desirable. A completely communist society, in which every member shares an identical portion of the wealth, is an ideal that has never been attained; attempts are marred by corruption and restriction of liberty. To live in a free society, the economy must be free to some extent as well. Income disparity has been a fixture of every society since the dawn of civilization and abandonment of the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life. This opportunity to excel and increase one’s personal wealth, as well as the social stratification it causes, is an incentive to work and part of the basic structure of civilized society. What can be accomplished is a reduction and minimizing of the income gap. A perfectly egalitarian utopia, although conceivable, cannot be immediately accomplished by contemporary society. But to ensure fairness and human rights for all, what can be done is a leveling of the playing field – an equality of opportunities. The most defining factor of equal opportunity is education.
Education, a fundamental human right, is not equally distributed in the United States. The most evident disparity on the surface is in schools themselves. Elite private schools are prohibitively expensive, and even in the public school system, there is a massive gap between schools in different geographic areas and serving different populations, usually following socio-economic lines. Graduation rates and standardized test scores are evidence of just how unevenly different school systems serve their students. Schools that serve low income areas tend to be underfunded and neglected, contributing to much higher dropout rates than both public schools in more affluent areas and private schools. Education inequality also occurs on a much more personal level. Regardless of school district, high school students living in low income families drop out at a rate six times higher than those in high income families [Cordes]. Related to income inequality’s effect on education is the racial disparity in education. In the United States, students from racial minorities have higher dropout rates and lower college attendance than white students. Level of education is one of the most decisive factors in income level, meaning that this inequality in education contributes directly to inequality in income. Redistributing funds to serve those in need and making quality education accessible to all, as well as encouraging educational achievement through social services such as school counselors and enforced education mandates, would drastically reduce education inequality, the first step towards reducing income inequality.
Discrimination does not end when students have graduated from high school or college; in fact, it is very present in the contemporary American workplace. Not only can discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation be a factor in whether someone is hired, but it also affects how those with jobs are paid. Currently, women earn about 77% of the average for men [Levi], while black people on average earn 80% of the white average [Levi]. This inequality often arises even among people doing the same jobs. Employers, the government, and the people of the United States need to raise awareness of these issues and call attention to them as they take place to move the country towards a standard of equal pay for equal work. Until people of all groups are paid equally for equal work, income is not fairly distributed.
Addressing the underlying factors that contribute to income inequality, such as education and workplace discrimination, is very important, but there are also actions that can be taken to tackle income disparity directly. The most immediate of these are the systems of taxation and social welfare. Welfare and Social Security provide a “safety net,” direct assistance for those in poverty or those who are unable to work. These programs exist to keep Americans out of abject poverty and hunger, but the nation should try to provide a higher standard of living for the least affluent of its citizens. When it comes to taxation, the wealthiest Americans, whose tax rates were cut by the Bush administration, are often able to evade paying most of their taxes with tax shelters and accounting loopholes. This lack of revenue from the richest Americans is one of the causes of the catastrophic government debt and budget deficit, which reduces the government’s ability to fund social welfare and poverty assistance programs. The most affluent Americans should have to pay a required percentage and not be able to evade it. This percentage should be scaled higher for higher income earners. The tax system should be simplified and made more fair, so that the richer one is, the more he or she pays in taxes.
Another aspect of economics that contributes to income inequality is the abusive and exploitative practices of the private financial market. The recent recession was in large part due to illegal and/or unethical Wall Street dealings. These were in large part allowed to occur because of the recent deregulation of the financial sector, something that must be undone. Reigning in banks, investment firms, and all financial professionals who engage in predatory practices is essential to stop their exploitation of the poorer people with whose money they have been entrusted. It is financial manipulation that has led to the “1 percent” gap, the vast proportion of the country’s wealth held by the most elite. This vast gap is the most insidious of all aspects of income disparity, the fact that so few hold a massively disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth – thereby impoverishing the rest of the country.
The income gap is determined largely by status of birth. Parent’s economic class is the single most decisive factor in an American individual’s economic success [Isaacs]. This birthright of sorts is reminiscent of the aristocracy that America was founded to oppose. This hereditary wealth gap must be stopped by estate tax (limiting inheritance), equal opportunity through education and absence of discrimination, and an end to the exclusive, insider ethos and nepotism of the very wealthy.
The Greek philosopher Plutarch said, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” Today, America has fallen ill with this ailment. It must be cured to ensure the future of the nation and its people. To progress as a nation, the United States must diminish income inequality by providing equal education, ending prejudice, taxing effectively, providing social welfare, regulating the financial market, and curbing hereditary wealth. Income disparity can be overcome, moving America into a prosperous future of equality.
Cordes, Bryan. "Inequality of Education in the United States." Thesis. Rockhurst University, n.d. Rockhurst.edu.Rockhurst University. Web. 21 Oct. 2012.
Isaacs, Julia B. "Economic Mobility of Families Across Generations." Brookings.edu. Brookings, Nov. 2007. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.
Levi, Patricia. "Equal Pay for Equal Work: Why the Gender Pay Gap Is Alive and Well in America." PolicyMic.com.PolicyMic, 27 Oct. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
Lowrey, Annie. "Income Inequality May Take Toll on Growth." NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2012.