Friday, October 24, 2014
Last night I attended an event at the Basilica of St. Mary. The event consisted of a presentation of the documentary “Inequality for All” and was followed by guided discussion in both small groups and later the entire audience as a whole. I attended the event because I have become deeply concerned about the issue of growing inequality in this country. You might not have noticed it but inequality has been a growing problem for decades now.
Complex issues such as inequality often defy easy explanation as well as quick and simple solutions. The documentary often rendered inequality here in the United States as very much a phenomenon of unequal compensation for work. Statistics were offered to substantiate the claim that income inequality has grown substantially in recent decades. The reasons behind the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor were also touched upon to some degree.
Before I get ahead of myself it is wise, as it is in any discussion focusing on a policy problem, to define the parameters under consideration. Defining the problem itself is thus critical. But even here there is some matter of disagreement. First of all how do you define inequality? Is inequality merely a matter of disparity in wages paid for work done? Is inequality something a bit less tangibly rendered?
For example, would it be more appropriate to describe inequality as the gap in access to opportunity? When healthcare, higher education and quality housing become increasingly unaffordable to an ever growing segment of the population I think it is necessary to step back and also conduct a simultaneous dialogue on the concepts of need, the American Dream and the proper role of government in society. To my knowledge interest in these topics has grown in recent years after the economic meltdown of 2008. If meeting your basic needs for food, shelter, healthcare and education become increasingly cost prohibitive what does that say about the priorities of your community, state and/or nation?
The issue of inequality is of great interest to me in part because I feel I myself have struggled to not get left behind. Despite my excellent skill set and educational history I have struggled to find a job commensurate with my abilities. And I have looked for such a job for three years in more than one market here in the United States. The reasons for the transformation of the American workplace are many. And the documentary did a decent job acknowledging two major issues. Those issues are technological advancement and the destruction of the power of unions. I will not get into those issues here as I wish to focus my writing a bit differently.
Both during and after the documentary screening I composed my own list of what I see as some of the major problems in American society that are directly relevant to the issue of inequality. My ideas appear below.
SOCIETY LEVEL PROBLEMS
Three major issues were at the forefront of my thoughts. These are the orientation of our society, gender and a cultural norm related to communication.
The orientation of our society
A number of years ago I read a fascinating book entitled God Is Red by Vine Deloria. Deloria was a respected Native American writer and thinker who, partly by virtue of his background, was able to stand outside mainstream American culture and offer insightful critique. I do not find this surprising as the Native American population all too often suffers incredibly high rates of poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and other social ills. I witnessed these issues firsthand while living and working on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota in 1997.
At another point I saw a recording of an interview done with Deloria. He spoke of how American society is often a rights based (or focused) society as opposed to what could be called a ‘responsibilities society’. I found his assessment to be scathing, timely…and correct. One need only look at some of the major policy issues featured in our national discourse in the last number of years to appreciate the wisdom of his observation. I will briefly mention two examples to illustrate my point.
Gun control is an excellent example. All too often the debate around gun violence and gun control legislation devolves into one dominated by people virtually screaming about their ‘rights’ to protect themselves, their family, their property and so on. Rarely do you hear any voices rise above the din that speak of our individual and collective responsibility to treat one another fairly and respectfully and perhaps thereby lessen aggression and violence.
Health care is another good example. During the overhaul of the American healthcare system (that came to be one of President Obama’s signature achievements (or debacles depending on whom you speak with)) there was much discussion about outcomes in health care, the costliness of our healthcare system and the like.
The right to access quality, affordable healthcare was even discussed. But yet again the underlying bias Deloria speaks about is present if you have ears to pay attention to what was not said. Rarely was there any discussion as to whether the creation and maintenance of an accessible and affordable healthcare system was the collective responsibility of our populace.
If you read my blog regularly you will notice certain thematic strands in my writings. One focuses on the matter of gender. Put simply I often find myself asking “Where are all the men?”
Last night I believe I found more of an answer to that puzzle. Put succinctly the men are likely not showing up, in part, due to the issue of wage stagnation that has gone on for the last three decades. Why should men feel motivated to get an education and enter the workforce when their earning power has not kept up with inflation for nearly a generation?
The stagnation of incomes among working men partly explains why there was a sudden influx of women into the workforce some thirty to forty years ago. The documentary indicated a major reason women entered the workforce in such an unprecedented way was in response to the stagnating incomes of their male counterparts. Women, in essence, made up for the declining earning power of men. And what unfolded as a result was a social (and very gendered) revolution. Today it is normative to find women in the workplace. Indeed, women are recently passing the men in the population according to a number of measures.
A talking culture
I long ago became very disenchanted with mainstream American media. Why? There are many reasons actually. I will share one of them here. We are a talking culture rather than a listening culture. You might think that the proliferation of talk shows, wireless communication devices (cell phones, PDAs, blackberries) and the Internet would indicate we are a culture that excels at communication. And in a sense we do. But I find much of that communication consists of talking at and over one another rather than to one another. Honestly, ask yourself how consistently you feel people take the time to truly listen to you throughout the course of your day.
Media such as Fox ‘News’ (I cannot and will not take that source of media seriously as they are so obviously a prime purveyor of the political Right’s biased talking points) regularly presents what I am referencing here. Long gone seem to be the days when people engaged in a debate would actually grant you the courtesy of fully listening to you before responding. Instead we have a culture whose media has all too often come to be characterized by churlishness and pettiness.
ACCOUNTING FOR COSTS
Anyone who has taken even rudimentary economics coursework knows that a fundamental problem that often appears in any number of scenarios is that of proper accounting for costs. When a product or service is created and placed in the marketplace for purchase it will have some associated cost. This cost will influence supply of and demand for that product. But serious problems may develop when the full costs of that item are not appropriately accounted for.
I thought the documentary did a poor job in regards to exploring the issue of the deeper and longer term costs of pervasive unemployment, underemployment and limited access to opportunity.
I can speak from experience when I state that unemployment and limited access to opportunity can result in a whole range of undesirable consequences. The documentary made no reference to correlations between unemployment (short and long-term) and social ills such as alienation, crime, domestic violence, health issues (such as depression), the full implications of lowered earning capacity over time and social and community instability that may be aggravated when large numbers of people are put out of work.
I would like to see more research on the implications of unemployment and reduced access to opportunity in regards to these social problems. When we do not properly account for the full range of consequences when making a certain policy choice we may ultimately experience the law of unintended consequences at work.
I don’t think it would be considered news to many Americans that many of their fellow Americans feel distinctly uneasy and even mistrusting of major institutions in this country. Whether it’s the Supreme Court, our Congress (which I have written about numerous times: look here, here, here, here and here for but a few examples), our law enforcement community (Ferguson, Missouri as latest example) or the response to the Ebola virus within our national borders it seems we Americans have very good reason to be highly skeptical of the quality of the institutions that should supposedly be serving ‘we the people’.
So now, as I always try to do, I am going to tie the topic of inequality to the matter of trauma. So what is the connection between the two? I would wager the following:
Trauma can be a very debilitating and isolating life experience. As such effective treatment requires a strategy consisting of measures to address debilitation and potential isolation. When people drop out of life altogether the increased risk such opting out may cause to their overall well-being is, in my opinion, significant. People need to belong to their communities. People need to have a purpose and reason for getting out of bed in the morning. And what they do for work is certainly an important part of that puzzle.
I took a number of months away from the workforce to focus on my own healing last year and earlier this year. Looking back I am glad that I did so. And yet, once I went back to work, I can say I am also glad that I did so. Being unemployed can be a very sobering, alienating and depressing experience. And this can be especially true for those of us who strongly identify our very lives with our vocational lives.
It’s my opinion that the serious issue of inequality could very well be much more damaging than the documentary managed to portray. For those who encounter multiple obstacles to full employment (and those who have been traumatized or are in recovery certainly can fall into this category) a system they perceive as being rigged against them can prove all the more daunting to engage with.
I count myself extremely fortunate to live in a state such as Minnesota in which the political atmosphere is fairly progressive. I have been especially grateful (and yes, even inspired) to live in a state where I can enjoy the benefit of very good insurance coverage. I believe it not an exaggeration to state that I could very well have ended up out on the streets last year when I suffered my health crisis in the summer of 2013. I am grateful that many Minnesota residents have relatively progressive values.
People who survive serious trauma often need a lot of support to rebuild their lives. I believe it is important that the ongoing dialogue on inequality acknowledge the reality that many people face very real obstacles that make their participation in the world (not just the world of work) very challenging. I hope through writing this piece today that I have provided my dear readers with some food for thought that will ultimately help us all to consider and speak about the problem of inequality in a broad-minded and holistic way.
Have a great Friday!
Fifty Day Challenge, Day #29
§ I attempted to synthesize my thoughts into a meaningful commentary in the above writing after attending a presentation at the Basilica of St. Mary
§ I attended an evening event featuring a good friend who is raising money for his travel fund