According to recent headlines from popular business sites, the United States is currently experiencing the longest period of economic growth in history at over 122 months. The last stretch of similar proportion was from March 1991 – Mar 2001 (CNBC). This expansion has created wealth, jobs, and massive GDP growth over the past decade. This is clearly a feat unmatched in our country, and one that assumes everyone has benefited. Unfortunately, a higher tide is not raising all boats in our harbor of prosperity. This week we will look beyond the numbers to see who might be left behind and explore opportunities to remedy the imbalance.
In May of this year the non-partisan Brookings Institute reviewed the economic expansion in depth, across the globe with some interesting findings. Overall income equality has improved since 2000, with significant upward mobility being recognized by the 50 poorest countries. The opposite was true in 34 of the most advanced economies, United States included, where income inequality worsened (Brookings, Is inequality really on the rise?, May 2019). Income inequality is measured by something called the Gini Coefficient or Gini Index, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality. According to the Census Bureau, who has been tracking the index since 1912, we are at 0.4845 as a country…Georgia is 0.4822, and Atlanta at an alarming 0.5728 as a comparison. Over the same 10 year period of economic growth, this index actually worsened by 3% in Georgia (US Census Bureau, Data Table B19083).
It can be tempting to conclude that the economic expansion only benefited the top earners, and perhaps some exploration into a disproportionate benefit is needed. Income concentration is only one factor, although it does make for a good headline. One culprit that often gets away without penalty is our “point of view.” We live in a world of instant data, instant decisions, and unfortunately an insatiable demand for instant solutions. The reality is that income inequality is not a new phenomenon and it continues to worsen due to an infatuation with policy solutions that are are more concerned with a big splash during the next election cycle, without consideration of the investment needed to sustain upside for the next generation. Rhetoric that offers “free _____ for _____”, or “universal ______” (fill in the blanks) does little to address the systemic challenges facing families living in poverty. At that same time, cuts to social safety net programs for the sake of saving a few bucks in taxes are equally misguided.
Some how we must find a way to meet immediate needs as a first step, without ignoring the structural reforms that empower opportunity at a longer trajectory point. Poverty and income inequality are related, and we can say that income inequality is a factor in poverty. Balancing the proverbial ledger may not be the lasting solution we need to address all of the long-term struggles though. Shifting our “point of view” to look beyond the numbers may reveal some real, albeit not headline worthy, solutions that begin to address the inequalities naturally developing in our community. Perhaps it is time we find a measure that helps define success with “human development” in addition to economic development. The United Way of Greater Atlanta is attempting to tackle this for our region with its Child Well Being Index, using data to determine where we should focus our efforts. This has been a valuable tool for my organization, as we work smarter to address the inequalities and systemic challenges facing our community.
At Action Ministries, we try to work to address both immediate and long-term needs, with a focus on engaging families for the future. Where we provide food resources to communities, trust is established, leading to financial literacy programs involving the entire family. Rental assistance may offer a budget reboot for a family, but community is built through workshops that introduce families to each other and repair the social safety nets lost during displacement. None of this work is flashy, or will break in the evening news, but it is worthy. Taking the long view means that we may not witness the real impact of the work on the next generation, but we just might change the trajectory of a family’s future for the good.