Caitlin R. Paul
Freedom High School
South Riding, VA
11th Grade
2nd Place, Virginia

How Can the Country Readily and Realistically Tackle Growing Income Disparity?

Now, anybody who thinks that we can move this economy forward with just a few folks at the top doing well, hoping that it's going to trickle down to working people who are running faster and faster just to keep up, you'll never see it.
-Barack Obama 9/6/2010 (1)

    The Federal and State governments need to focus investments of our tax dollars on innovation and education to create greater and more equal opportunity. Right now, the poor (and those of modest means) are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. It is financially difficult for people of modest means to send their children to college (which is why I’m writing this essay). Education and innovation will help create higher paying jobs which in turn will create a stronger economy and help lower the cost of living. Equal educational opportunity and more innovation will decrease the income disparity. 

    To counteract the income disparity higher education must be more accessible to all families, not just those in the top one percent. Otherwise, children of the 99 percent are much less likely to get the high paying jobs they need to close the income disparity. Many young adults with middle class parents face problems that can prevent them from attending college. For example, some will not be accepted into college because of inadequate access to good K-12 schools which limit their quality of education, even if they have potential to do well. Parents in the top one percent can more easily pay for tutors, SAT classes, AP courses, and other services to counteract a particular school or a poor teacher and make it more likely that their child will be accepted into college. Another issue is the cost of college. Some middle class students might not apply because they know they will not be able to afford the high cost of tuition, room and board, as well as money lost in the short term from not working. 

    To ameliorate the problem of poor K-12 educational standards, all students must have better access to quality educational opportunities. One way to democratize educational resources is for schools to provide more online classrooms. With online classrooms, students will access computers at school, listen and take notes from a qualified, engaging teacher online, and then discuss problems and solutions with teachers and peers in the classroom. Online classrooms will ensure that more students can access the curriculum, master a learning module, and then move ahead. Children will be taught and learn at their own pace. 

    This measure is not enough to alter the rising income disparity. Even with excellent K-12 education many students will not be able to afford higher education. Tuition has risen steadily for decades. In 2011, tuition was nearly six times what it was in 1985. At most public colleges, which are typically more affordable than private colleges, the tuition increase results from state budget cuts. The states are prioritizing programs like Medicaid instead of education (2). While Medicaid is necessary, it is not a program that will repair the economy. Education improvements will result in more Americans receiving lucrative jobs; those Americans will then be available to pay into programs like Medicaid, thereby strengthening the program. Investing in education at both the K-12 and college-levels, is a legitimate high priority because it will assist in maintaining the middle class and provide greater opportunity for the lower and middle classes to move upward. 

    Higher education means that more people will have the skill necessary to innovate in medical, energy, and other fields. Innovation in the medical and energy fields will not only provide additional high income jobs, but will also provide cheaper alternatives in those fields. Thus, innovation is also key to closing the gap between rich and poor. Both governments and the private sector must invest in innovation to reap opportunities and benefits that will help close the growing income disparities. 

    Strong science and technology innovation are crucial for economic growth. The main technological industries in 1999 that sustained economic growth were various computer based and health care fields. Innovation in these industries fueled economic growth (3). However, while the United States still has the strongest Research and Development (R&D) sector in the world, it is quickly losing its edge because of Federal government cuts to R&D (4). Investments made in R&D and thus innovation, specifically in the medical and energy fields, will decrease the cost of living and will promote job growth. 

    The United States must promote medical advancements to create jobs and to make health care more affordable. The cost of health care is rising and many people can no longer afford routine, preventive doctor visits. Costs of medical care have risen 350% since 1985 (2). Many individuals who have a disease are not diagnosed quickly enough because they cannot afford to pay for regular exams. Costs to treat advanced disease are extreme. For example, in rural areas, only 32% of diabetes patients received all of the recommended exams (5). The price of health care must come down for the basic welfare of Americans. The Affordable Care Act has taken the first steps in making health care more affordable, but there is a pronounced need for advancements in the medical field in order to provide patients with cheaper, more efficient care and cures (6). 

    The United States must also promote investments in alternative energy. Everyone needs and uses energy. While energy itself does not make up a great deal of the Gross Domestic Product of the United States, it impacts almost everything that does (7). The price of gasoline has risen 300% since 1985 (2), making it more difficult for the poor and middle class to keep within their budgets. Advancements in alternative energy, through innovation, will lower the cost of living substantially for many struggling people in the United States. 

    With the focus on bettering the educational system and investing in research and development, it is more likely that the next new technology will originate in the United States. New technologies and the opportunities that arise with them will produce a stronger middle class. 

    Both the increased educational opportunities and increased innovation funding will lead to higher paying jobs for lower income people. The Federal and State governments need to invest in the science and technology fields and provide incentives to businesses to do the same. Those fields have huge potential to grow and create more jobs. If more people study science and technology, they will have access to these R&D jobs. For example, there is a dearth of medical professionals in rural areas. The health sector desperately needs more qualified individuals to serve as doctors, nurses, and technicians in these rural areas (5). The increase in educated individuals will serve to solve that problem and at the same time provide people with higher income jobs. 

    Increased innovation in medical fields will also create more jobs because more people will have access to cheaper medical care, making preventive exams affordable and available. The increased access to preventative exams will lead to a greater need for medical professionals. Innovations in the medical field can also provide jobs for R&D specialists, who work to create cheaper, safer, and more efficient equipment. 

    Innovation in alternative energy will also create higher paying jobs. For example, if the fuel cells industry alone is developed it will create over a million jobs (8). If wind and solar industries are improved, additional jobs will be created because more people will be needed to handle the manufacturing and instillation of the alternative energy equipment. 

    In 1914, Henry Ford announced that he would pay all qualified workers a minimum of five dollars a day (a much more generous salary then than it would be considered today). He theorized that the workers would use their increased salaries to make their lives better (and buy his cars). His plan worked (9). The strength of the middle class in the 20s can be largely attributed to innovators like Henry Ford, who created jobs for individuals and paid them enough so they buy more consumer products, creating even more jobs and eventually leading to their investment in their children’s future. 

    We desperately need individuals like Henry Ford today. The top innovators, educators, and elected officials of today must convene, work together, and generate ideas to resolve these intertwined problems. It is imperative that the avalanche of growing income disparity be stopped, not only for the wellbeing of the majority of the people, but also for the economy. A successful and confident middle class provides the backbone of a strong private sector. Investing in education and innovation creates a circle in which education crafts great minds whose innovations create more and better paying jobs and the good paying jobs provide better opportunities for people to send their kids to college.