Imagine a world where it is illegal to sit down. Could you survive if there were
no place you were allowed to fall asleep, to store your belongings, or to stand
still? For most of us, these scenarios seem unrealistic to the point of being
ludicrous. But, for homeless people across America, these circumstances
are an ordinary part of daily life.
Homelessness continues to affect Americans across the country, including a
rising number of families and children. Despite the need, there is insufficient
affordable housing and shelter availability across the country, leaving people
with no choice but to struggle for survival on the streets. Although homeless
people have no choice but to perform life-sustaining conduct in public
places, cities continue to treat these activities as criminal.
Homelessness continues to be a national crisis, affecting
millions of people each year, including a rising number
of families. Homeless people, like all people, must
engage in activities such as sleeping or sitting down
in order to survive. Yet, in communities across the
nation, these harmless, unavoidable behaviors are
treated as criminal activity under laws that criminalize
This report provides an overview of criminalization
measures in effect across the nation and looks at trends in
the criminalization of homelessness, based on an analysis
of the laws in 187 cities that the Law Center has tracked
since 2009. The report further describes why these laws
are ineffective in addressing the underlying causes of
homelessness, how they are expensive to taxpayers, and
how they often violate homeless persons’ constitutional
and human rights. Finally, we offer constructive
alternatives to criminalization, making recommendations
to federal, state, and local governments on how to
best address the problem of visible homelessness in a
sensible, humane, and legal way.
Key Finding: Homeless People are Criminally
Punished for Being in Public Even When They Have
No Other Alternatives
Homelessness is caused by a severe shortage of
affordable housing. Over 12.8% of the nation’s supply
of low income housing has been permanently lost since
2001, resulting in large part, from a decrease in funding
for federally subsidized housing since the 1970s. The
shortage of affordable housing is particularly difficult
for extremely low-income renters who, in the wake of
the foreclosure crisis, are competing for fewer and fewer
In many American cities there are fewer emergency
shelter beds than homeless people. There are
fewer available shelter beds than homeless people in
major cities across the nation. In some places, the gap
between available space and human need is significant,
leaving hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of people
with no choice but to struggle for survival in outdoor,
Despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter
space, many cities have chosen to criminally punish
people living on the street for doing what any
human being must do to survive. The Law Center
surveyed 187 cities and assessed the number and type
of municipal codes that criminalize the life-sustaining
behaviors of homeless people. The results of our
research show that the criminalization of necessary
human activities is all too common in cities across the
Prevalence of laws that criminalize homelessness:
• Laws prohibiting “camping”1 in public
o 34% of cities impose city-wide bans on
camping in public.
o 57% of cities prohibit camping in particular
• Laws prohibiting sleeping in public
o 18% of cities impose city-wide bans on
sleeping in public.
o 27% of cities prohibit sleeping in particular
public places, such as in public parks.
1 Laws that criminalize camping in public are written broadly to
include an array of living arrangements, including simply
sleeping outdoors. See, e.g., Orlando, Fla., Code of the City
of Orlando, Fla., tit. II, ch. 43, § 43.52(1)(b) (1999), https://library.
html#TITIICICO_CH43MIOF_S43.52CAPREX (“For the purposes of
this section, ‘camping’ is defined [in part] as . . . [s]leeping out-ofdoors.”).
NO SAFE PLACE: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
8 National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
• Laws prohibiting begging in public
o 24% of cities impose city-wide bans on begging
o 76% of cities prohibit begging in particular
• Laws prohibiting loitering, loafing, and vagrancy
o 33% of cities make it illegal to loiter in public
throughout an entire city.
o 65% of cities prohibit the activity in particular
• Laws prohibiting sitting or lying down in public
o 53% of cities prohibit sitting or lying down in
particular public places.
• Laws prohibiting sleeping in vehicles
o 43% of cities prohibit sleeping in vehicles.
• Laws prohibiting food sharing
o 9% of cities prohibit sharing food with
Examples of cities with bad criminalization policies:
• Clearwater, Florida. Although 2013 data from the
local Continuum of Care reveals that nearly 42% of
homeless people in the area are without access to
affordable housing and emergency shelter, the City
of Clearwater criminalizes camping in public, sitting
or lying down in public, begging in public, and
sleeping in vehicles.
• Santa Cruz, California. A whopping 83% of
homeless people in the Santa Cruz area are without
housing or shelter options, yet the city criminalizes
camping in public, sitting or lying down on public
sidewalks, and sleeping in vehicles.
• Manchester, New Hampshire. 12% of homeless
people in the City of Manchester are without
housing or shelter options, yet the city criminalizes
sleeping, lying down, sitting down, and camping in
parks and other public places throughout the city.
• Virginia Beach, Virginia. Approximately 19% of
homeless people in Virginia Beach have no option
but to perform all of their daily functions outside
due to a lack of access to housing and shelter, yet
the City of Virginia Beach makes it illegal to sit, lie
down, beg, or sleep in vehicles anywhere within the
• Colorado Springs, Colorado. 13% of homeless
people in the Colorado Springs area are without
housing or shelter options, yet the city criminalizes
sleeping in public, camping in public, and begging.
• El Cajon, California. Nearly 52% of homeless
people in the El Cajon area are without access to
shelter, yet El Cajon restricts or bans sleeping in
public, camping in public, begging in public, and
sleeping in vehicles.
• Orlando, Florida. 34% of homeless people in the
Orlando area are without shelter beds, yet the city
restricts or prohibits camping, sleeping, begging,
and food sharing.
Key Finding: The Criminalization of Homelessness is
Increasing Across the Country
There has been an increase in laws criminalizing
homelessness since our last report in 2011. While the
increase is seen for nearly every surveyed category of
criminalization law, the most dramatic uptick has been
in city-wide bans on fundamental human activities.
This increase in city-wide bans shows that the nature of
criminalization is changing and that cities are moving
toward prohibiting unavoidable, life sustaining activities
throughout entire communities rather than in specific
areas, effectively criminalizing a homeless person’s very
Change in Criminalization Laws since 2011:
• Camping in Public
o City-wide bans on camping in public have
increased by 60%.
o Bans on camping in particular public places
have increased by 16%.
• Sleeping in Public
o City-wide bans on sleeping in public have not
changed since 2011.
o Bans on sleeping in particular public places
have decreased by 34%.
NO SAFE PLACE: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
• Begging in Public
o City-wide bans on begging in public have
increased by 25%.
o Bans on begging in particular public places
have increased 20%.
• Loitering, Loafing, or Vagrancy Laws
o City-wide bans on loitering, loafing, and
vagrancy have increased by 35%.
o Bans on sitting or lying down in particular
places have decreased by 3%.
• Sitting or Lying Down in Public
o City-wide bans on sitting or lying down in
particular public places have increased by 43%.
• Sleeping in Vehicles
o Bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by
Key Conclusion: Criminalization Laws Violate the
Civil and Human Rights of Homeless People
Criminalization laws raise important constitutional
concerns, and courts across the country have found that
many such laws violate the rights of homeless people.
Courts have invalidated or enjoined enforcement of
criminalization laws on the grounds that they violate
constitutional protections such as the right to freedom
of speech under the First Amendment, freedom from
cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth
Amendment, and the right to due process of law
guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Moreover, the criminalization of homelessness violates
international human rights treaties to which the U.S. is
a party. In March, the U.N. Human Rights Committee,
reviewing U.S. compliance under the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found that the
criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. violated the
Key Conclusion: Criminalization Laws Are Costly to
Criminalization is the most expensive and least effective
way of addressing homelessness. A growing body of
research comparing the cost of homelessness (including
the cost of criminalization) with the cost of providing
housing to homeless people shows that housing is the
most affordable option. With state and local budgets
stretched to their limit, rational, cost-effective policies
are needed – not ineffective measures that waste
precious taxpayer dollars.
Examples of Cost Savings Studies:
• In its 2013 Comprehensive Report on
Homelessness, the Utah Housing and Community
Development Division reported that the annual
cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for
an average homeless person was $16,670, while
providing an apartment and a social worker cost
• A 2013 analysis by the University of New Mexico
Institute for Social Research of the Heading Home
Initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico showed that,
by providing housing, the city reduced spending on
homelessness-related jail costs by 64%.
• A 2014 economic-impact analysis by Creative
Housing Solutions evaluating the cost of
homelessness in Central Florida found that
providing chronically homeless people with
permanent housing and case managers would save
taxpayers $149 million in reduced law enforcement
and medical care costs over the next decade.
Key Conclusion: Criminalization Laws Are Ineffective
Criminalization measures do nothing to address the
underlying causes of homelessness and, instead, only
worsen the problem. Misusing police power to arrest
homeless people is only a temporary intervention,
as most people are arrested and incarcerated for
short periods of time. Ultimately, arrested homeless
people return to their communities, still with nowhere
to live and now laden with financial obligations,
such as court fees, that they cannot pay. Moreover,
criminal convictions – even for minor crimes –
can create barriers to obtaining critical public
benefits, employment, or housing, thus making
homelessness more difficult to escape.
NO SAFE PLACE: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
10 National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
Key Recommendation: Criminalization Laws Should
Be Replaced with Constructive Solutions to Ending
Criminalization is not the answer to meeting the needs
of cities that are concerned about homelessness. There
are sensible, cost-effective, and humane solutions to
homelessness, which a number of cities have pursued.
The following examples represent important steps in
the right direction, and these practices should be widely
replicated. It is important to note, however, that the best
and most enduring solution to ending homelessness
is increased investment in affordable housing. Without
additional investment in housing at the level needed to
end current and prevent future homelessness, even the
best models will be unable to solve the problem.
Examples of constructive alternatives to
• Miami-Dade County, Florida. Miami-Dade County
has dedicated funding for homeless services
through its Homeless and Domestic Violence Tax.
The 1% tax is collected on all food and beverage
sales by establishments licensed by the state to
serve alcohol on the premises, excluding hotels and
motels. 85% of the tax receipts go to the MiamiDade
County Homeless Trust which was created
in 1993 by the Board of County Commissioners to
implement the local continuum of care plan and to
monitor agencies contracted with by the County to
provide housing and services for homeless people.
• Salt Lake City, Utah. The State of Utah has
reduced chronic homelessness by an impressive
74% since Utah’s State Homeless Coordinating
Committee adopted its 10 Year Plan to End Chronic
Homelessness in 2005. The plan utilizes a highly
successful Housing First model that, among
other things, sets aside hundreds of permanent
supportive housing units, primarily in the Salt Lake
City area. The model also creates a streamlined
process for assessing a homeless person’s need and
eligibility for existing housing opportunities in a
timely manner, reducing the amount of time one
must wait for the services he or she needs.
• Houston, Texas. In January of 2011, the Houston
Police Department launched its Homeless
Outreach Team with the mission of helping
chronically homeless people obtain housing. The
team, comprised of police officers and a mental
health professional, collaborates with area service
providers to help homeless people access available
resources in the community rather than simply
cycling them through the criminal justice system.
• The federal government should invest in
affordable housing at the scale necessary to end
and prevent homelessness.
o The federal government should fund the
National Housing Trust Fund (“NHTF”). To
achieve this, the Federal Housing Finance
Administration (“FHFA”) should immediately
release profits from Fannie Mae and Freddie
Mac to the NHTF that have instead been given
to the US Treasury. In addition, Congress should
pass housing finance reform legislation that
would provide at least $3.5 billion per year for
o Congress should provide renewal funding for
all Section 8 vouchers currently in use and
provide additional vouchers to assist homeless
individuals and families, domestic violence
survivors, and people with disabilities.
• The federal government should play
a leadership role in combatting the
criminalization of homelessness by local
governments and promote constructive
o HUD should ensure that fewer McKinneyVento
homeless assistance grant dollars go to
communities that criminalize homelessness.
HUD should better structure its funding
by including specific questions about
criminalization in the annual Notice of
Funding Availability, and by giving points to
applicants who create constructive alternatives
to homelessness while subtracting points
from applicants who continue to criminalize
o The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) should
ensure that its community policing grants
are not funding criminalization practices.
In addition, DOJ should write its guidance
documents to actively discourage
criminalization, and it should take a more active
role in investigating police departments that
violate the civil rights of homeless people.
NO SAFE PLACE: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
o USICH should publicly oppose specific local
criminalization measures, as well as inform local
governments of their obligations to respect the
civil and human rights of homeless persons.
• State governments should enact and enforce
Homeless Bill of Rights legislation that explicitly
prohibits the criminalization of homelessness.
These laws should be written to ensure that
homeless people are granted the right to engage
in basic, life-sustaining activities without being
subject to harassment, discrimination, or criminal
• Local governments should stop criminalizing
o Local governments should stop passing laws
that criminalize homelessness. In addition,
local governments should immediately cease
enforcing existing criminalization laws and take
steps to repeal them.
o Local governments should dedicate sources
of funding to increase the availability of
affordable housing, but continue to fund
needed homeless services, such as emergency
shelter, while there is not enough housing for
all those who need it.
o Local governments should pursue sensible
and cost-effective constructive alternatives to
criminalization such as improving coordination
of existing services and improving police
training and practices related to homelessness.
What are Causes of Global Poverty?
As governments, aid workers and activists search for solutions to the urgent problem of widespread poverty and seek to combat its many negative effects, there is a need to identify the causes of poverty in order to create sustainable change. Understanding what causes global poverty is a crucial part of the process of devising and implementing effective solutions. Most analysts would agree that there is no single root cause of all poverty everywhere throughout human history. However, even taking into account the individual histories and circumstances of particular countries and regions, there are significant trends in the causes of global poverty.
5 Causes of Poverty
History. Many of the poorest nations in the world were former colonies, slave-exporting areas and territories from which resources had been systematically extracted for the benefit of colonizing countries. Although there are notable exceptions (Australia, Canada and the U.S. being perhaps the most prominent), for most of these former colonies, colonialism and its legacies have helped create the conditions that prevent many people from accessing land, capital, education and other resources that allow people to support themselves adequately. In these nations, poverty is one legacy of a troubled history involving conquest.
War & political instability. Both of these factors have often been tied to histories of colonialism, but whatever the causes of war and political upheaval, it is clear that safety, stability and security are essential for subsistence and, beyond that, economic prosperity and growth. Without these basics, natural resources cannot be harnessed individually or collectively, and no amount of education, talent or technological know-how will allow people to work and reap the benefits of the fruits of their labor. Likewise, laws are needed to protect rights, property and investments, and without legal protections, farmers, would-be entrepreneurs and business owners cannot safely invest in a country’s economy. It is a telling sign that the poorest countries in the world have all experienced civil war and serious political upheaval at some point in the 20th century, and many of them have weak governments that cannot or do not protect people against violence.
National Debt. Many poor countries carry significant debt loads due to loans from wealthier nations and international financial institutions. Poorer nations pay an average of $2.30 in debt service for every $1 received in grant aid. In addition, structural adjustment policies by organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund often require poorer nations to open their markets to outside business and investors, thereby increasing competition with local businesses and, many argue, undermining the potential development of local economies. In recent years, calls for debt reduction and forgiveness have been increasing, as activists see this too as a key means of reducing poverty. The United Nations has also made it a priority to examine how economic structural adjustment policies can be designed to place less pressure on vulnerable populations.
Discrimination and social inequality. Poverty and inequality are two different things, but inequality can feed widespread poverty by barring groups with lower social status from accessing the tools and resources to support themselves. According to the United Nations Social Policy and Development Division, “inequalities in income distribution and access to productive resources, basic social services, opportunities, markets, and information have been on the rise worldwide, often causing and exacerbating poverty.” The U.N. and many aid groups also point out that gender discrimination has been a significant factor in holding many women and children around the world in poverty.
Vulnerability to natural disasters. In regions of the world that are already less wealthy, recurrent or occasional catastrophic natural disasters can pose a significant obstacle to eradicating poverty. The effects of flooding in Bangladesh, the drought in the Horn of Africa and the 2005 earthquake in Haiti are all examples of the ways that vulnerability to natural disasters can prove to be devastating to large portions of affected countries. In each of these cases, already impoverished people became refugees within their own countries, losing whatever little they had, being forced out of their living spaces and becoming almost completely dependent on others for survival. According to the World Bank, two years after cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the debt loads of local fishermen had doubled. The Solomon Islands experienced an earthquake and tsunami in 2007 and the losses from that disaster equaled 95 percent of the national budget. Without foreign aid assistance, governments in these countries would have been unable to meet the needs of their people.
These are only five causes of poverty. They are both external and internal causes; both man-made and natural. Just as there is no single cause of poverty, there is no single solution. Nevertheless, understanding the ways that complex forces like these interact to create and sustain the conditions of widespread global poverty is an important first step in formulating comprehensive and effective responses to combat poverty around the world.
– Délice Williams
When Bad Financial Advice Pushes Seniors into Poverty
April 20, 2016 | Joe Valenti
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
When you meet with a financial adviser, the advice you get may not be what’s best for you—it may be what’s best for them and their bottom line.
Fortunately, earlier this month at the Center for American Progress, the U.S. Department of Labor announced its final fiduciary rule that would require financial professionals who advise on how to invest retirement savings to act in their clients’ best interest. The fiduciary rule is much more than an obscure legal concept—it’s a commonsense action that closes 40-year-old loopholes in retirement security laws that were left open by Congress. It also returns at least $17 billion a year to American families.
Granted, struggling families are not likely to have access to retirement funds and financial advisers, so some may wonder how this helps low-income Americans. The fact is that faulty advice can leave individuals in poverty when they retire, even if they were able to save for retirement during their working years.
For example, Ruby H. of Philadelphia scrimped for 17 years to put aside $5,000 for retirement, and an adviser helped her grow that amount to $17,000. But when her adviser switched firms, he changed her investments into the ones most advantageous to him, and she lost everything. And Phil Ashburn lost the bulk of his savings after he spent 30 years working for utility companies: first Western Electric in 1972, and finally Pacific Bell. Offered a buyout in 2002, he was recommended to a financial adviser who put the value of his savings—about $355,000—in an expensive variable annuity. However, he ended up with only about 20 percent of those savings following the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the adviser received a commission of roughly 7 percent and ended up making $900,000 that year.
More than half of all working-age households are considered inadequately prepared for retirement.
These stories are a painful reminder of why workers face such bleak prospects for retirement. Forty years ago, when the rules on retirement advice were first written, most workers didn’t have to worry about whether they were getting good advice because they weren’t expected to plan for their own retirement. The vast majority of workers with a retirement plan had traditional pensions, which rewarded a lifetime of work with monthly payments for life. There was no need to wade through different investment options and savings strategies. But today, with the erosion of pensions and advent of options that are far less secure, more than half of all working-age households are considered inadequately prepared for retirement, up from 31 percent in 1983.
The rule also reminds us why Social Security is so crucial, particularly in this era of financial uncertainty. Social Security brings the incomes of more than nearly 15 million elderly above the poverty line, cutting senior poverty by three-quarters. And for roughly two-thirds of the elderly, Social Security provides the majority of their retirement income. Future retirees need the assurance that Social Security will be there even if their savings, or their financial adviser, aren’t up to par. Thankfully, as Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) noted during the Department of Labor’s announcement, cutting Social Security is no longer mainstream: “How much should we cut Social Security is such a preposterous proposition except on K Street, except among pundits.”
But while Social Security is safe for now, this fiduciary rule is under attack by some financial firms and their conservative allies. This disagreement isn’t unexpected. As Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has pointed out, there are “17 billion reasons” why special interests oppose the rule—that is, the $17 billion returned to the American people. In fact, from the beginning of discussions around the rule, some industry players have called it unworkable, argued that their voices were not heard, or threatened to sue. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also derided the rule, calling it “Obamacare for financial planning” and seeking to undo it. Given that his stated concern for the poor has often been accompanied by policy proposals to make drastic cuts to the safety net, perhaps this is not surprising. But, as the Department of Labor has stepped in to close loopholes of Congress’ own making after decades of improper financial advice, rolling back the fiduciary rule now will only increase retirees’ vulnerability in the coming years.
Some opponents have even gone so far as to claim that the reform will diminish working families’ access to financial advice because some advisers may stop working with less profitable savers if they cannot charge as much. But the fact is that most working families with small amounts of savings are not served by advisers today to begin with, and may have less trust in the advice that’s given in the first place. This same argument about access is a common defense for other predatory products—whether payday loans or for-profit colleges—in which the real question about access is whether companies can keep their access to the vulnerable consumers whom they grift. Meanwhile, new firms are offering independent, nonconflicted advice at a fraction of the cost, proving that it can indeed be done without ripping off current or future retirees.
This rule is a stark reminder for members of Congress to decide which side they are on: that of savers or of special interests. If they stand with Secretary Tom Perez and those who came out in favor of the rule, they have the opportunity to prevent bad financial advice from cheating more families out of their retirement dollars.
The Many Injustices of the Money Bail System
April 27, 2016 | Congressman Ted Lieu
When Kareem Chappelle forgot a court date, a bench warrant was issued, and Chappelle turned himself in the day before Thanksgiving. If he’d had $600 for bail, Chappelle could’ve gone home in time for the holiday. Instead, without the money, the first-time offender sat in jail for more than a month, losing his home, his car and his job. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
When Kareem Chappelle forgot a court date, a bench warrant was issued, and Chappelle turned himself in the day before Thanksgiving. If he’d had $600 for bail, Chappelle could’ve gone home in time for the holiday. Instead, without the money, the first-time offender sat in jail for more than a month, losing his home, his car and his job. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
After reading about the recent death of 26-year-old Jeffrey Pendleton—who was being held in a New Hampshire jail simply because he couldn’t afford to pay $100 in bail—my reaction was anger. Why was Mr. Pendleton held in jail in the first place? He had not been convicted of a crime, nor did he appear to pose a flight risk or danger to the public. He was locked up simply because he was poor. And he died in a jail cell.
Tragically, stories like his are far too common in America, and they are the reason I have introduced the No Money Bail Act of 2016 to reform our system of pretrial detention.
Last July, Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal while driving in Texas. She was put in jail and bail was set at $5,000, an amount she could not afford to pay. Three days later she was found hanged in her cell. And Qiana Williams, who shared her story at the White House last December and on Capitol Hill this past February, spent weeks in a St. Louis jail because she couldn’t afford to pay court and traffic fees.
Across the country, it comes down to this: People of means are able to pay their way out of jail, while the poor remain behind bars awaiting their day in court.
Even for those who can muster the funds, the money bail system is unfair.
Justice in America should not be bought and paid for.
In San Francisco, 29-year-old Crystal Patterson, who gets by on a $12.50-an-hour job, paid a bail bondsman $1,500 plus interest to post her $150,000 bail so she could return home to care for her grandmother. She also signed an agreement to pay back the $15,000 bond posted by the bail bondsman. Afterwards, the District Attorney dropped the charges, but, though the bail bondsman would have been returned the $150,000 bail, Patterson is unlikely to ever see the money she paid to the bail bond company.
At any given moment, more than 450,000 Americans are locked up without ever having been convicted of a crime. In my home state of California, more than two-thirds of those in jail haven’t been convicted, a total of more than 42,000 people.
Moreover, even a few days in jail can be devastating for families—especially those that are already fighting to make ends meet. Perversely, money bail gives inmates a strong incentive to plead guilty, even when innocent, because they cannot afford bail and need to get back to their families, jobs, or education. Being locked up can also increase an individual’s risk of suicide and depression.
Finally, unnecessary pretrial detention of low-risk defendants is expensive. State and local governments in the U.S. spend an estimated $14 billion annually to incarcerate people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. In contrast, pretrial systems based on risk, rather than wealth, cost on average $7 per day.
For these reasons, most nations consider money bail an obstruction of justice. In fact, the only other country that maintains a large commercial bail bond industry is the Philippines. In the case of our disgraceful bail system, American exceptionalism is decidedly not a good thing.
Any serious effort at criminal justice reform must address our feudal-like bail system, which amounts to modern-day debtors’ prisons. The “No Money Bail Act of 2016,” which I introduced earlier this year, would eliminate the payment of money as a condition of pretrial release at the federal level, and also would give states three years to switch to alternative systems or else forfeit law enforcement grants.
Justice in America should not be bought and paid for. For the sake of Jeffrey Pendleton, Sandra Bland, Qiana Williams, and the countless other Americans who have suffered at the hands of our unjust money bail system, it is long past time that the United States join the rest of the civilized world when it comes to pretrial incarceration.
The Rich and the Rest
Inequality leaves many Americans poor and voiceless, Harvard analysts say.
By Christina Pazzanese | Contributor Feb. 9, 2016, at 6:00 a.m.
The Rich and the Rest
[Image: NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 17: Occupy Wall Street protesters walk past a business man in a window during a march from the United Nations building to Bryant Park on September 17, 2013 in New York City. The march centered around the idea of a so-called Robin Hood Tax, a 0.5 percent levy to be applied to financial service companies, with proceeds to be used for social services. Today marks the two year anniversary since the protestors set up camp in New York’s financial district, calling for drastic social and finanical reform. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)]
(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
“We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” Associate Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said decades ago during another period of pronounced inequality in America.
Echoing the concern of the Harvard Law School graduate, over the last 30 years myriad forces have battered the United States’ legendary reputation as the world’s “land of opportunity.”
The 2008 global economic meltdown that bailed out Wall Street financiers but left ordinary citizens to fend for themselves trained a spotlight on the unfairness of fiscal inequality. The issue gained traction during the Occupy Wall Street protest movement in 2011 and during the successful U.S. Senate campaign of former Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren in 2012.
[READ: The Costs of Inequality: When a Fair Shake Isn’t Fair Enough]
What was once viewed as a fringe political issue is now at the heart of the angry, populist rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign. Personified by outsider candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, economic inequality has resonated with broad swaths of nervous voters on both the left and right.
Lawrence Katz, the Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, says the most damaging aspects of the gap between the top 1 percent of Americans and everyone else involve the increasing economic and political power that the very rich wield over society, along with a growing educational divide and escalating social segregation in which the elites live in literal and figurative gated communities.
If the rate of economic mobility — the ability of people to improve their economic station — was higher, he says, our growing income disparity might not be such a problem.
“But what we have been seeing is rising inequality with stagnant mobility, which means that the consequences of where you start out, whether it’s in a poor neighborhood, whether it’s from a single-parent household, are more consequential today than in the past. Your ZIP code and the exact characteristics of your parents seem to matter more,” said Katz. “And that’s quite disturbing.”
The growing gap between the rich and the rest isn’t a matter of who can afford a yacht or a Manhattan penthouse, analysts say. Rather, it’s the crippling nature of these disparities as they touch nearly every aspect of daily lives, from career prospects and educational opportunities to health risks and neighborhood safety.
The widening income gap also has fueled a class-based social disconnect that has produced inequitable educational results. “Now, your family income matters more than your own abilities in terms of whether you complete college,” said Robert Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. “Smart poor kids are less likely to graduate from college now than dumb rich kids. That’s not because of the schools, that’s because of all the advantages that are available to rich kids.”
Economic inequality also feeds the political, driving everything from the actions of our political representatives to the quality and quantity of civic engagement, such as voting and community-based public service.
“It’s long been known that the better educated, those with higher incomes, participate more” in politics on “everything from voting to contacting politicians to donating,” said Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “What is quite new in recent times is … very systematically, that government really responds much more to the privileged than to even middle-income people who vote.”
Money Eases Access
The U.S. Supreme Court’s unlacing of campaign-finance laws that limited how much donors could give candidates or affiliate organizations, coupled with allowing donors to shield their identities from public scrutiny, have spawned a financial arms race that requires viable presidential candidates, for example, to solicit donors constantly in a quest to raise $1 billion or more to win.
Given that rulebook, it’s hardly surprising that the political supporters with the greatest access to candidates are usually the very wealthy. Backers with both influence and access often help to shape the political agenda. The result is a kind of velvet rope that can keep those without economic clout on the sidelines, out of the conversation.
“Something like the carried-interest provision in the tax code, when you explain it to ordinary citizens, they don’t like the idea that income earned by investing other people’s money should be taxed at a lower rate than regular wage and salary income. It’s not popular in some broad, polling sense. But many politicians probably don’t realize it at all because … politicians spend a lot of their time asking people to give money to them [who] don’t think it’s a good idea to change that,” said Skocpol. “There’s a real danger that, as wealth and income are more and more concentrated toward the top, that it does become a vicious circle.”
[READ: Income Inequality Is the New Economic Issue]
“Money has corrupted our political process,” said Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School. In Congress, he said, “They focus too much on the tiny slice, 1 percent, who are funding elections. In the current election cycle [as of October], 158 families have given half the money to candidates. That’s a banana republic democracy; that’s not an American democracy.”
Lessig was so unhappy with how political campaigns are funded that he briefly ran for president on the issue. Reviewing his efforts during a Harvard forum on the topic in November, he described his candidacy as a referendum on the campaign-finance system, but also on the need to reform Congress, which he called a “broken and corrupted institution” undercut by big donors and gerrymandered election districts.
How We Got Here
Christopher “Sandy” Jencks, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, believes that the last 30 years of rising American inequality can be attributed to three key factors:
The decline in jobs and employment rates for less-skilled workers, which has increased the number of households with children but no male breadwinner.
The demand for college graduates outpacing the pool of job candidates, adding to the gap between the middle class and upper-middle class.
The share of income gains flowing to the top 1 percent of earners doubling as a result of deregulation, globalization, and speculation in the financial-services industry.
The U.S. government does “considerably less” than comparable democracies to even out disposable family incomes, Jencks says. And current state and local tax policies “actually increase income inequality.”
“All the costs and risks of capitalism seem to have been shifted largely to those who work rather than those who invest,” he said.
Compounding the economic imbalance is the unlikely prospect that those at the bottom can ever improve their lot.
“We have some of the lowest rates of upward mobility of any developed country in the world,” said Nathaniel Hendren, an associate professor of economics at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences who has studied intergenerational mobility and how inequality transmits across generations.
Hendren, along with Harvard economists Katz and Raj Chetty, now at Stanford University, looked at the lasting effects of moving children to better neighborhoods as part of Moving to Opportunity, a short-lived federal housing program from the ’90s. Their analysis, published in May, found that the longer children are exposed to better environments, the better they do economically in the future. Whichever city or state children grow up in also radically affects whether they’ll move out of poverty, he said.
For children in parts of the Midwest, the Northeast and the West, upward mobility rates are high. But in the South and portions of the Rust Belt, rates are very low. For example, a child born in Iowa into a household making less than $25,000 a year has an 18 percent chance to move into the upper 20 percent of income strata over a lifetime. But a child born in Atlanta or Charlotte, North Carolina, has only a 4 percent chance of moving up, their study found.
[PHOTOS: The Big Picture – January 2016]
What unites areas of low mobility, Hendren says, are broken family structures, reduced levels of civic and community engagement, lower-quality K-12 education, greater racial and economic segregation, and broader income inequality.
In addition, 90 percent of American workers have seen their wages stall while their costs of living continue to rise.
“When you look at the data, it’s sobering. Median household income when last reported in 2013 was at a level first attained in 1989, adjusting for inflation. That’s a long time to go without any gains,” said Jan Rivkin, the Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
Wage inequality is on the rise for both genders. Within that range, the gap between men and women remains a hot-button issue despite gains by women in the last three decades. Broadly, the ratio of median earnings for women increased from 0.56 to 0.78 between 1970 and 2010.
But according to Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences, the gender earnings gap is not a constant, varying widely by occupation and age. While women in their late 20s earn about 92 percent of what their male counterparts earn, women in their early 50s earn just 71 cents on the dollar that the average man makes. For some career paths, like pharmacists, veterinarians and optometrists, corporatization has closed the gap between men and women. Even so, wiping away the gender pay gap isn’t a cure-all for inequality.
“If you reduce gender inequality to zero, you’ve closed inequality … by a very small percent,” said Goldin. “I’m not saying there aren’t things that we can’t fix, but I am telling you, without a doubt, they’re going to move the lever by very little.”
Underinvestment in “The Commons”
Rivkin says that the pressures of globalization and technological change and the weakening of labor unions have had a major impact. But he disagrees that political favoritism toward business interests and away from ordinary citizens is the primary reason for burgeoning inequality. Rather, he says that sustained underinvestment by government and business in “the commons” — the institutions and services that offer wide community benefits, like schools and roads — has been especially detrimental.
Last spring, Harvard Business School conducted an alumni survey for its annual U.S. Competitiveness Project research series, probing respondents for their views on the current and future state of American businesses, their prospects of dominating the global marketplace, and the likelihood that the resulting prosperity would be shared more evenly among citizens.
The survey findings, released in September, showed that most HBS alumni were skeptical that living standards would rise more equitably soon, given existing policies and practices. A majority said that inequality and related issues like rising poverty, limited economic mobility, and middle-class stagnation were not only social ills, but problems that affected their businesses.
“My sense is that a larger and larger number of business leaders are waking up to the idea that issues of inequality, and particularly lack of shared prosperity, have to be addressed for the sake of business,” said Rivkin, the project’s co-chair.
The surging power of the wealthy in America now rivals levels last seen in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, analysts say. One difference, however, is that the grotesque chasm between that era’s robber barons and tenement dwellers led to major social and policy reforms that are still with us, including labor rights, women’s suffrage and federal regulatory agencies to oversee trade, banking, food and drugs.
Hendren said there’s no less chance today of rising or falling along the income spectrum than there was 25 years ago. “The chances of moving up or down the ladder are the same,” he said, “but the way we think about inequality is that the rungs on the ladder have gotten wider. The difference between being at the top versus the bottom of the income distribution is wider, so the consequences of being born to a poor family in dollar terms are wider.”
What Price Inaction?
Unless America’s policymakers begin to chip away at the underlying elements of inequality, the costs to the nation will be profound, analysts say.
“I think we will pay many prices. We will continue to have divisive politics. We won’t make the investments we need to provide the majority of kids with a better life, and that would be really not fulfilling,” said Katz.
Partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., has diminished the effectiveness of government — perhaps the most essential and powerful tool for addressing inequality and addressing citizens’ needs. By adopting a political narrative that government should not and cannot effectively solve problems, legislative inaction results in policy inaction.
[MORE: No Easy Answer for Rising Income Inequality]
“It’s definitely been a strategy” to justify starving government of resources, which in turn weakens it and makes it less attractive as a tool to accomplish big things, said Skocpol. “In an everybody-for-themselves situation, it is the better-educated and the wealthy who can protect themselves.”
Surveying the landscape, Katz sees reasons to be both hopeful and worried.
“The optimism is that there are regions of the U.S., metropolitan areas that have tremendous upward mobility. So we do have models that work. We do have programs like Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit that work pretty well. I think that if national policy more approximated the upper third of state and local policies, the U.S. would have a lot of hope,” said Katz. “My pessimistic take would be that if you look at two-thirds of America, things are not improving in the way we would like.”
Putnam is heartened that inequality has been widely recognized as a major problem and is no longer treated as a fringe political issue.
What Can Be Done?
Jencks says there are many steps the federal government could take — if there was the political will to do so — to slow down or reverse inequality, like increasing the minimum wage, revising the tax code to tax corporate profits and investments more, reducing the debt burden on college students and improving K-12 education so more students are prepared for college and for personal advancement.
“Strong regulation and strong support for collective control over the things that society values is much more prevalent in societies that have lower levels of inequality,” he said.
Though labor rights have been eroding for decades, Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School, still thinks that unions could provide an unusual way to help equalize political power nationally. For decades, unions wielded both economic and political clout, but legislative and court decisions reduced their effectiveness as economic actors, cutting their political influence as well. At the same time, campaign finance reform efforts to limit the influence of wealth on politics have failed.
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To restore some balance, Sachs suggests “unbundling” unions’ political and economic activities, allowing them to serve as political organizing vehicles for low- and middle-income Americans, even those whom a union may not represent for collective bargaining purposes.
“The risk that economic inequalities will produce political ones … has led to several generations of campaign finance regulation designed to get money out of politics. But these efforts have not succeeded,” Sachs wrote in a 2013 Yale Law Review article. “Rather than struggling to find new ways to restrict political spending by the wealthy … the unbundled union, in which political organization is liberated from collective bargaining, constitutes one promising component of such a broader attempt to improve representational equality.”
Still, given the present trend lines, Goldin said the economic forces that perpetuate unequal wages — and inequality more broadly — won’t simply disappear even with a spate of new laws.
“I think it is naïve of most individuals to think that for everything there is something that government can legislate and regulate and impose that makes life better for everybody,” she said. “That’s just not the case.”
Even so, with Congress stalled over fresh policies, analysts say that much of the innovation concerning inequality has moved to state and local levels, where partisanship is less calcified and the needs of constituents are more evident.
In Oregon and California, for example, residents will be automatically registered to vote upon turning 18, a move that Skocpol says should bolster civic participation and provide protection from onerous new voter-identification laws.
While it’s clear that investing in children and their education pays lifelong dividends for them, those gains take 20 years to be realized, said Katz. That’s why it’s critical that their parents get help and live in less vulnerable situations.
“There is certainly evidence that if we reduce the degree of economic and racial and ethnic segregation of our communities, we can move in that direction,” said Katz, who is working on an experiment to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit in New York City to help younger workers without children who are struggling to break into the labor market.
Changes to the minimum wage, the tax system, and the treatment of carried interest “are all debates in which our society should engage,” said Rivkin, who cautioned that those would be hard-fought political battles that wouldn’t yield results for at least a decade.
Of course industry needs to run its businesses productively and profitably, but it can do so without harming “the commons,” Rivkin said. “Business has been very effective at pursuing its narrow self-interest in looking for special tax breaks. I think that kind of behavior just needs to stop.” Drawing on an idea from Harvard Business School finance Professor Mihir Desai, Rivkin suggests that businesses treat their tax responsibilities as a compliance function rather than as a profit center. That money could then go back into investment in “the commons,” where “lots of common ground” exists among business, labor, policymakers, educators and others.
[ALSO: Wealth Inequality Has Widened Along Racial Lines]
“The businesses should be working with the local community college to train the workers whom they would love to hire; the university should be getting together with policymakers to figure out how to get innovations out of the research lab into startups faster; business should work with educators to reinvent the school system,” said Rivkin.
Putnam suggests more widespread mentoring of low-income children who lack the social safety net that upper- and middle-class children enjoy, a topic he explored in “Our Kids.”
He recently convened five working groups to develop a series of white papers that will offer overviews of the key challenges in family structure and parenting; early childhood development; K-12 education; vocational, technical and community colleges; and community institutions. The papers will be shared with mayors and leaders in churches, nonprofits, and community organizations across the nation, where much of the reform effort is taking place.
“There’s an increasing sense that this is a big deal, that we’re moving toward an America that none of us has ever lived in, a world of two Americas, a completely economically divided country,” said Putnam. “That’s not an America I want my grandchildren to grow up in. And I think there are lots of people in America who, if they stop and think about it, would say, ‘No, that’s not really us.’ ”
Christina Pazzanese is a staff writer for the Harvard Gazette. This report is part of a series on inequality researched and written by Harvard University. It is published here with permission. You can read Part 1 here.
The costs of inequality: When a fair shake isn’t
Harvard researchers, scholars identify stubborn tenets of America’s built-in inequity, offer answers
February 1, 2016 | Editor’s Pick Popular
By Alvin Powell, Harvard Staff Writer
First in a series on what Harvard scholars are doing to identify and understand inequality, in seeking solutions to one of America’s most vexing problems.
It’s a seemingly nondescript chart, buried in a Harvard Business School (HBS) professor’s academic paper.
A rectangle, divided into parts, depicts U.S. wealth for each fifth of the population. But it appears to show only three divisions. The bottom two, representing the accumulated wealth of 124 million people, are so small that they almost don’t even show up.
Other charts in other journals illustrate different aspects of American inequality. They might depict income, housing quality, rates of imprisonment, or levels of political influence, but they all look very much the same.
Perhaps most damning are those that reflect opportunity — whether involving education, health, race, or gender — because the inequity represented there belies our national identity. America, we believe, is a land where everyone gets a fair start and then rises or falls according to his or her own talent and industry. But if you’re poor, if you’re uneducated, if you’re black, if you’re Hispanic, if you’re a woman, there often is no fair start.
Percent of Total Wealth in the US
One measure of American inequality is the percentage of the nation’s overall wealth owned by different parts of the population. The graphic above shows that the richest 20 percent of the country owns 88.9 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 40 percent owes more than it owns. Graphic by Judy Blomquist/Harvard Staff
Inequality, of course, has become a national buzzword and a political cause célèbre in this election year. It’s been discussed everywhere in the recent past, from the State of the Union Address to Thomas Piketty’s best-seller to the lips of presidential candidates to Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si.”
Though the American public and politicians have just rediscovered the problem of inequality, the issue has long been an area of academic inquiry at Harvard, where research on its root causes crosses numerous disciplines.
Inequality in America has been on the rise in recent years, after dipping by some measures following the Gilded Age and the Great Depression. It was a reality when Harvard philosopher John Rawls wrote his seminal text, “A Theory of Justice,” in 1971. It was a reality when now-Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) lecturer Marshall Ganz organized farm workers in the Southwest in the 1960s and ’70s. It was a reality when Nancy Oriol, now dean for students at Harvard Medical School (HMS), founded the Family Van care program in 1992. It was a reality when Government Professor Jennifer Hochschild wrote “Facing Up to the American Dream” in 1995, and when other faculty members penned books and articles on the problem’s many facets. And it was an expanding reality in 2011, when HBS Professor Michael Norton published that rectangular graph, in a study that also showed that Americans really don’t know how unequal the United States is — and that, given a blind choice, they’d rather live in Sweden, thank you very much.
A blizzard of statistics illustrates the problem and, with each monthly release from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or any number of think tanks, the pile of reports grows higher. Their by-now-familiar theme is that the rich have gotten richer — dramatically so — in recent decades, while the poor have gotten poorer. And the middle class has just been hanging on.
Wages for most relatively stagnant
The details show that real wages for most U.S. workers have been relatively stagnant since the 1970s, while those for the top 1 percent have increased 156 percent, and those for the top 0.1 percent have increased 362 percent, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.
Those trends resulted in the poorest 20 percent of Americans receiving just 3.6 percent of the national income in 2014, down from 5.7 percent in 1974. The upper 20 percent, meanwhile, received nearly half of U.S. income in 2014, up from about 40 percent in 1974, according to Census Bureau statistics.
But some analysts, such as Hochschild and Piketty, the French economist, say the area of greatest concern is overall wealth, not income alone.
“From a poverty perspective, income means a lot — making $15,000 versus $20,000,” said Hochschild, who directs the HKS-based Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy. But “from an inequality perspective — writ large — it’s about wealth. … As a ’60s kid, I care a whole lot about ownership of the means of productivity.”
In his 2013 best-seller “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Piketty argues that wealth is critically important because capital grows faster than the economy. That means that those who hold capital — assets like money, stocks, real estate — will see their wealth grow faster than those managing on wages alone. Over time, that concentrates society’s wealth into fewer hands.
America today appears to illustrate this process in action. Though the wealthiest 20 percent earned nearly half of all wages in 2014, they have more than 80 percent of the wealth. The wealth of the poorest 20 percent, as measured by net worth, is actually negative. If they sell all they own, they’ll still be in debt.
“Inequality, it’s not just about wealth, it’s about power. It isn’t just that somebody has some yachts, it’s the effect on democracy. For me, the big issue is the power problem. … I think we’re in a really scary place.”
— Marshall Ganz
The widening wealth gap isn’t just a problem for the poor, census figures show. The median net worth of some 60 percent of Americans fell between 2000 and 2011, while that of the upper 40 percent increased.
So what happened? Tax rates for the wealthy have fallen, globalization has changed the world’s and the nation’s economies, and rapidly changing technology has transformed the workplace. While those factors are in play, Norton said that nothing’s been proven yet as a dominant cause. To Hochschild, the problem’s roots lie in poverty, exacerbated by racism. The poor usually have worse health and education, leading to low-paying jobs and substandard housing, conditions that tend to be worse if you’re black, Native American, or another ethnic minority. To Ganz, a senior lecturer in public policy, that’s not an accident, and it boils down to two words.
“Political failure,” said Ganz. “I think the galloping inequality in this country results from poor political choices. There was nothing inevitable, nothing global. We made a series of political choices … that set us on this path.”
Ganz pointed to a broad deregulation push that started with fiscal restraint under President Jimmy Carter and a budget-cutting campaign to “starve the beast” of government that began with President Ronald Reagan. Collectively, the two administrations eviscerated the government’s ability to act and function as a check on private wealth, he said.
Ganz also blamed a suite of changes that eroded the power of labor unions. Their clout fell as legal protections for organizing activities eroded, beginning with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and continuing since. Without that protection, employers were able to pressure organizers and reduce the likelihood that unions would take hold and thrive.
“It takes a lot of courage to say — when your employer holds all the power — ‘We want something better,’” Ganz said. “This has been a real political success story for the conservative movement and private management.”
Union membership down almost half
U.S. union membership has fallen by almost half since 1983, from one in five U.S. workers to just over one in 10 in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public union membership has fared better than private labor unions, whose membership has fallen to just 6.6 percent of the workforce. Recent anti-union activities in some states have focused on those public-sector groups.
Despite their declining numbers and influence, the unions’ effect on wages remains clear. Nonunion wages in 2014 averaged $763 per week, just 79 percent of union members’ $970 per week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Ganz said that the impact of falling union membership is felt not just in workers’ pocketbooks, but in the halls of power, and that is the change that troubles him the most.
“Inequality, it’s not just about wealth, it’s about power,” Ganz said. “It isn’t just that somebody has some yachts, it’s the effect on democracy. For me, the big issue is the power problem. … I think we’re in a really scary place.”
To Lawrence Katz, the Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics, the problem of inequality in income, wealth, and political power is exacerbated by another issue. America’s vaunted economic mobility has become decidedly less so, making it increasingly likely that where you start out financially is where you’ll wind up.
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Surveys of attitudes toward wealth conducted by Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration, show that while Americans believe their nation is too unequal, they also believe that some inequality is good. Workers, after all, should benefit from their own toil. The single mom who works two jobs and puts herself through school should be celebrated when she lands a better job, buys a nicer car, and moves to a better neighborhood. To a great extent, that’s the hallowed American way — when it’s possible.
Thomas Scanlon, the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, said it’s important to think hard about why high inequality is a problem at all. That’s because the conclusions reached may underpin action. If you’re wealthy and you’re facing a hefty tax increase, or you’re a business owner bracing for a minimum-wage hike for your employees, the reason why you’ll get to keep less money and someone else will get more matters greatly.
“Philosophers are in the business of thinking hard about issues, identifying the relevant factors,” Scanlon said. “There is widespread concern about the increased gap between ‘the 1 percent’ and the rest. But it is important to be clear exactly what is bad about this.”
Altruistic motives underlie much of the national debate on the topic. One argument says the wealthy should sacrifice some of their gains to help the poor. But Scanlon said this is not the only valid reason to worry about national inequality. Workers aren’t charity cases. Instead they’re partners in the production of goods and services in this country and are entitled to a fair share of the system’s benefits, Scanlon wrote in a recent article. He agrees that inequality also results in distributing political power inequitably, making governmental institutions more unfair, and undermining the integrity of the economic system. All of that raises a key question for workers: Why bother pushing so hard?
“If an economy is producing an increasing level of goods and services, then all those who participate in producing those benefits — workers as well as others — should share in the result,” Scanlon wrote. “No one has reason to accept a scheme of cooperation that places their lives under the control of others, that deprives them of meaningful political participation, that deprives their children of the opportunity to qualify for better jobs, and that deprives them of a share of the wealth they help to produce. The holdings of the rich are not legitimate if they are acquired through competition from which others are excluded, and made possible by laws that are shaped by the rich for the benefit of the rich. In these ways, economic inequality can undermine the conditions of its own legitimacy.”
“Talent is evenly spread throughout our country. Opportunity is not. Right now, there exists an almost ironclad link between a child’s ZIP code and her chances of success.”
— James Ryan
Others at Harvard have been pondering inequality as well, examining the issue through their own disciplinary lenses. Oriol, as director of obstetric anesthesia at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in the ’80s, saw firsthand the disparities in infant mortality among the poor in Boston’s neighborhoods.
“The discussion was: Why was infant mortality, in the shadow of some of our greatest hospitals, as bad as in some developing countries? As an obstetric anesthesiologist, I saw this, and I would hear from my patients how this came to be,” she recalled. “And it just seemed wrong.”
By the early ’90s, Oriol’s effort to address the problem through a mobile medical clinic, now HMS’ Family Van, brought health screenings and referrals to the nearby neglected neighborhoods. But the van staff quickly learned that infant mortality wasn’t the only problem.
“Infant mortality was simply a sign of a community in distress,” Oriol said. “The issue was poverty and what I call being medically disenfranchised. It was all the issues of life. It was homelessness, it was not having a job — just everything.”
Over at Harvard Divinity School, Dan McKanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity, is examining the issue from a moral standpoint. He said society’s economic fruits — born most recently on a wave of automation and technical sophistication — make it possible to improve the lives of the poor beyond what was possible previously.
One way to do that, he said, would be to guarantee all citizens a minimum income. This would free millions from what can become “wage slavery,” he said, and allow people to follow passions and creative urges. McKanan acknowledged that such a scheme — which might be accomplished by expanding Social Security — is politically unlikely, but said it is the role of academics to think deeply about how to create a more moral and just society that works better.
Though the resultant redistribution of wealth represented by McKanan’s idea would be too extreme for many Americans, Norton’s survey work on the topic does show that Americans want a more equal society than exists now.
A surprising central finding of Norton’s research is that we really don’t know how unequal the United States is. In a 2011 study, conducted with Duke University’s Dan Ariely, Americans consistently underestimated just how unequal the nation is and said their preferred wealth distribution ― while preserving some inequality — is more leveling than their inaccurate understanding of the current state of affairs.
In a blind test, we’ll take Sweden
Those surveyed guessed that the top 20 percent of Americans own 60 percent of the wealth, not the more than 80 percent they actually have. Further, when shown three unlabeled wealth distributions ― one completely equal, one dramatically skewed (and in fact representing divisions in the United States today), and a third using the income distribution of modern Sweden — 92 percent preferred the Swedish model.
“We want to be in Sweden, all subgroups want to be in Sweden, if people could distribute the wealth any way they wanted,” Norton said. “Everyone is OK with rich and poor, but almost no one prefers the current state of the world.”
But that agreement in a controlled study doesn’t translate to easy political fixes, Norton said.
Building a Better America
Actual U.S. wealth distribution plotted against estimated and ideal distributions. Source: Building a Better America
“We had the perhaps naïve idea that we could show people the reality, and their attitudes and behavior would change,” Norton said. “But I’m a behavioral scientist, and we know that information alone is often not enough. It’s not an information problem, it’s an action problem.”
It’s not surprising that liberals say there’s too much inequality, or that the very poor believe the gap between the rich and themselves is too big. But Norton said most conservatives and the wealthy also agree that the gap is too big. The problem, he said, is that the different camps disagree on solutions. A minimum wage hike to some is a direct way to get money in people’s pockets. To others, though, it’s a way to get someone’s job taken away. Another problem, he said, is that many people distrust the government — which many blame for the dichotomy in the first place — to fix it.
Without meaningful action, American inequality will continue to be felt not just in the economic arena, but in many other facets of American life, including criminal justice, health, and education, among others.
When Norton surveyed HBS alumni on the subject as part of the School’s 2015 Survey on U.S. Competitiveness, many respondents pointed toward education as both a cause of inequality and a potential solution.
That’s a point of view that Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan understands. The ideal of American education is equal quality for all, but it has never been achieved, Ryan said in an interview, and understanding why that is true, and how to change it, is the core mission of the School he leads.
“Talent is evenly spread throughout our country. Opportunity is not,” Ryan said. “Right now, there exists an almost ironclad link between a child’s ZIP code and her chances of success.”
Some progress has been made. Minority educational achievement has improved over the past 40 years, and achievement gaps have narrowed some between minorities and whites, and between women and men, according to the four-year report card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But gaps persist. The 44-point reading gap that existed between black and white 9-year-olds in 1971 had narrowed by 2012, but still stood at 23 points, according to the report.
Educational attainment refers to the highest level of education that an individual has completed. Source: Census. Graphic by Judy Blomquist/Harvard Staff
That story is mirrored in higher education, with some gains but persistent gaps. The proportion of associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees awarded to blacks and Hispanics all increased, though progress slowed the higher the degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 2009-10 academic year, blacks earned 14 percent of all associate’s degrees, on a par with their 13.2 percent representation in the population. But they earned only 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 12 percent of master’s, and 7.4 percent of doctorates.
Those figures also mask the fact that while black women have progressed and earn disproportionately more of those degrees, the gaps for black men have been slower to close, according to a 2012 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
At the same time, black men are overrepresented in U.S. jails, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. At a time when society, in the wake of racial flare-ups in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, has been questioning just how evenhanded its law enforcement practices are, African-American men make up 37 percent of the prison population, compared with 32 percent white and 22 percent Hispanic. In the general population, blacks make up 13 percent, whites 62 percent, and Hispanics 17.
Possible solutions to inequality:
Better educational prospects
Political willingness to act
Standardized health care
Balanced tax policies
Improved economic mobility
Bruce Western, the Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy, professor of sociology, and director of HKS’ Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, is among the Harvard faculty members examining the problems of dramatic inequality in the criminal justice system. In today’s America, Western said in an interview, an outsized two-thirds of African-American men with low levels of schooling will spend time in prison, losing years when they could be building careers while gaining a stigma that can undercut the rest of their lives.
Archon Fung, academic dean and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at HKS, said scholars are approaching the issue from many angles. Some are concerned with what he termed “the floor,” the problems of those in the bottom 10 or 20 percent, while others are concerned with the gulf between rich and poor.
“Some people are more floor people, and some are more gap people,” Fung said.
A third focus, Fung said, concerns mobility and opportunity, or how easy or hard it is to move between social classes.
Fung himself works on democracy and participation. Through that lens, he’s concerned with the floor, the gap, and how political participation and influence may be restricted for those at the bottom who lack influence.
What is clear, Fung said, is that those who are well-off simply have more: more money to donate to candidates, more time to volunteer in their communities, and more resources generally that allow them to participate and thrive in civil society. All of that, he said, is reflected in studies that have shown that government is more responsive to those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.
In the end, Fung said, “Preserving the integrity of our democracy may be the most important reason to address poverty and inequality.”
Gazette staff writers Colleen Walsh, Christina Pazzanese, and Corydon Ireland contributed to this report.
Illustration by Kathleen M.G. Howlett.
Next Tuesday: political and economic inequality