Inequality marching onward

This fall in my courses we have been focusing on the longer-term structural inequality. Meanwhile, we have been witnessing and objecting to the more stark evidence that African-Americans do not get anything like equal treatment under the law in Ferguson, MO and New York City.

But the longer-term issues persist, and we need to keep  an eye on them at the same time as the more immediate issues. Excessive incarceration of African-Americans in California is one such issue, and here is another related issue: the growing wealth-gap between Af-Am and White households. Sometimes basic descriptive statistics make a powerful political point:

The median net worth of white, non-Latino households in 2013 was $141,900.
The median net worth of African-American households in 2013 was $11,000.
The median net worth of Latino households in 2013 was $13,700.

This is why a basic working knowledge of descriptive statistics can help make a political point. The median is a more robust measure of central tendency than the average, because it is not skewed higher by the occasional billionaire household, the way the average would be. Non-Latino white households had net wealth thirteen times greater than African-American households, and ten times greater than Latin-American households. Sources: Tanvi Misra’s article in CityLab, and the Pew Research Study which she references.

Got justice?

Americans are deeply committed to the idea of giving everyone equal opportunity to begin with, and allowing for inequality of outcomes: the classic John Rawls formulation of social justice. Rawls proposed that we test our ideas of justice through thought-exercises. Right now, three different eleven-year-old children are growing up in three different households in America. To keep this thought-experiment realistic, let us imagine the most typical of these households–the median in each case. Is it possible to imagine that each of these children has an equal opportunity, starting out, when the wealth-inequality of their households is so great? If not, what do we need to do to give every American child an equal opportunity?

I feel like I am restating the obvious here. But at minimum, these three data-points are a useful riposte against the current argument that “We’ve had enough affirmative action. Everyone grab your bootstraps!” It also makes me think about two urban policy issues:

1. Equal physical access to job opportunities.

I have long been a proponent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and one of its core principles is that everyone has the right to equal physical access to spaces, with an equal level of dignity. Thus, for example, if someone is wheelchair-bound they have a right of access to a restaurant space without having to be wheeled in through the rear loading-dock and kitchen. At the urban level, a comparable access has been part of the Right To The City discussion for several years now. Here I am invoking only one quite specific dimension of that larger argument: we need to plan for the most disadvantaged populations in our cities to have access to jobs at the least cost of both time and money. We can measure both income and job-densities by Census Tract, and some pretty basic GIS work will reveal this metric both numerically and graphically. We can rate metropolitan areas based on this fundamental social-justice metric.

2. Equal funding for schools.

Here I am reiterating an argument that has often been made by education-activists. I will only add an historical dimension here: Americans decided that free, compulsory, universal primary and secondary education would be the best policy for developing our people as citizens and wealth-producers. This policy was implemented in a series of steps, starting in the early 20th century. So it does not trace back “forever” in U.S. history. Empirically, it seemed to work. The Great Depression was a serious crisis, but compared to the persistent economic crises of the 1870s and 1890s, the U.S. became much more economically resilient. Just as a reality-check: functional literacy across Afghanistan is still below 50%. Think about how hard it would be to set up a moderate-tech industrial sector in a country where half of your potential employees cannot read anything more than road-signs. Once the benefits of education became apparent, the harm of segregated schools also became apparent. That is why the Brown v. Board case (1954) is so interesting to read. It certainly did not desegregate America. But it made a powerful, focused argument about the infeasibility of the ‘separate-but-equal’ principle established by the Plessy decision in 1896, just before universal primary and secondary educational policies were adopted.

However, tax policy was consolidating at the same time as educational policy, and the intersection of these two was flawed. In the 19th century, the only two significant forms of taxation were¬† property tax and import/export taxes (“customs”). Why? because these were the two easiest places to collect revenue for regimes that had archaic systems of information-management. Income tax and capital-gains taxes were implemented in 1913 (which went to federal gvt), and sales taxes started being adopted in the 1930s, by states and counties. School districts were funded by local property taxes, in part because the other forms of taxation did not yet exist. One might argue that schools are local–and it may make sense for them to be governed locally–but comprehensive education has always been a national policy concern. So now we have a structural mismatch between the geography of school-district revenue and the purpose it serves: an educated, productive citizenry. As the Serrano v. Priest case concluded in 1973, we need to move away from a local-revenue educational system to one which is funded from the state level, at minimum. Local governance is fine, but this is one playing field that needs to be officially leveled-out.

At the scale of the Bay Area, we need as many children as possible to become competent in our core economic sectors: molecular biology; software design and programming languages; electronics design; graphic digital arts; and story-telling. Not all students will excel in one of these areas, but we should be promoting the maximum competence among all children in our region in these fields. Furthermore, our primary sectors are quite globalized, and so we need our whole population to be as ‘globally competent’ as possible. This will require an exceptionally strong primary/secondary foundation for all children in this metropolis. Here, the question of social justice overlaps with the regional-economics question of maintaining the deepest possible local team for economic productivity. To implement this, we need well-funded primary and secondary education in every district in Northern California. Even if this remains a racist country where well-off Americans are not committed to giving an equal chance to every child, this is a compelling argument for comprehensive workforce development in a technology-intensive economy.