Tag Archives: Political

Education and Income Disparity

In recent decades as income disparity increased, upward mobility decreased. In the same period, quality of education deteriorated for those in lower income communities. This deterioration results when family and community income influence the quality of education. The income disparity leads to education disparity, limiting employment opportunities for the disadvantaged and increasing social problems.

The affluent can choose their communities and have the option of enrolling their children in private schools if public schools do not meet their expectations. The poor do not have those choices. Some communities offer charter schools, which allow a few students an alternative to public school. Private and charter schools have several advantages over public schools; they can select their students and control their budget, curriculum, and teaching staff. As a result, they have more freedom in accommodating student needs. Public schools must accept all students in their communities, function within fixed schedules and curricula, and live within budgets that compete with other community priorities.

Communities receive education funding from local, state, and federal governments. Local funding comes from property and/or sales taxes. Affluent communities are able to provide better resources than low-income communities. The result is that low-income communities, which have the greatest needs, may have schools with the fewest resources, the least qualified teachers, and inadequate school facilities. Federal and state funding, distributed by formula and programs to address specific factors affecting quality of education, varies from state to state. These funds do not directly address the resource advantage of affluent communities, which can afford higher salaries to lure the best qualified and most experienced teachers and provide more resources and better facilities.

Low-income communities often have more students living in environments where social problems prevail. In Income Inequality & Social Dysfunction, Pickett and Wilkinson conclude that many social problems, including mental illness, violence, teenage births, obesity, drug abuse, and poor educational performance, are more common in societies with income and social stratification, and their prevalence increases with degree of inequality. If our society continues to tolerate the conditions that increase income disparity, these problems will perpetuate.

Social problems are a drain on the economy. Better employment opportunities can reduce their prevalence. Education disparity limits the ability of the disadvantaged to be aware of, and to qualify and compete for, better employment opportunities. Might government investment to ensure education equality be an effective way to reduce social problems and income disparity?

Education and Democracy

Everyone in this country is entitled to an education through high school, but that is not true in many parts of the world. We like to think there is opportunity for all, but today our public education system fails many students, handicapping their future. Academic achievement is well below that of many developed and developing countries according to the Program for International Student Assessment. Government programs to incentivize better performance include No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which use student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and school systems. These programs typically result in “teaching to the test,” which ultimately reduces the quality of education by limiting the scope of teaching.

Our government was established as a representative democracy, which can serve all its members only if all participate. To sustain a truly democratic society, quality and equality of education are important. To our capitalist society, job training may seem most important, but maintaining a democracy requires a comprehensive education for all. A representative democracy requires informed citizens who must evaluate social, political, and economic issues, proposed solutions, and their potential impact. They need to convey their concerns to their elected representatives and monitor their responsiveness. To perform these functions effectively, so that both society and individuals benefit, citizens require a basic education in the humanities.

Lack of proper education allows a well-educated elite to influence social, political, and economic institutions to favor their interests over those of the less educated. In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson discuss how a government controlled by an elite segment of the population can produce extractive, repressive institutions that ultimately lead to failed nations. They conclude that successful democracies require inclusive, progressive institutions that benefit all members of society.

We are at risk of allowing a well-educated elite to gain control. Intensive lobbying and campaign funding by large corporations and well-funded individuals have caused government to become more partisan and radicalized in recent years. As a result our economic recovery is favoring the wealthy, increasing income disparity, and dismantling the social safety net. If we do not provide a comprehensive education for all, do we risk becoming a failed democracy?

Equal Justice Under Law?

I was working in Washington DC during the Clinton era in what was, and still is, a divided city. On an afternoon I was spending with my daughter and grandson, we found ourselves in front of the Supreme Court Building looking up at its inscription, “Equal Justice Under Law”. A young man walking by confronted us and asked angrily, “What does that mean?” pointing to the words carved into the façade. Instinctively, I replied, “It’s an ideal to strive for.” With that he responded, “Good answer!” and continued on his way. Hoping he was satisfied, we were greatly relieved when he left.

Recent news reports on the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that indigent defendants in criminal cases have a right to a lawyer paid for by the state, reminded me of that encounter. Our schools teach that our system of justice is a system of laws, which apply equally to all without discrimination. That ideal is expressed in the inscription. Although our views on whether particular laws are just may differ, we expect our system of justice to approach this ideal. Gideon was an attempt to reduce discrimination against indigents, but is there “Equal Justice Under Law”?

Gideon does not guaranty a competent or well-paid lawyer. The state provides great resources for prosecutors. They are more likely to convict a defendant with limited resources than one with independent resources to retain highly competent defense attorneys. Well-defended criminal cases can be lengthy and costly, both for the state and the defendant. This often motivates states to restrict support to indigent defendants. Under such circumstances only the wealthy are likely to receive justice.

The July 2010 Justice Policy Institute report: A Capitol Concern:The disproportionate impact of the justice system on low-income communities in D.C. notes that Washington, DC has the greatest income inequality of any major city in the country. The average income of the top fifth of households is 31 times higher than that of the bottom fifth of households. It also has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates. Although total crime rates have fallen, police resources have increased, leading to increased arrests for low-level and non-violent offenses. These arrest policies disproportionately affect the low-income communities. A person living in a poor neighborhood just a short distance from where “Equal Justice Under Law” is inscribed might have good reason to ask an outsider “What does that mean?”

Who Answers to the People?

The ongoing protests and uprisings in the Middle East are nearly continuous in our daily news, as rebel factions challenge their existing governments. The rebels represent those disillusioned by autocratic, corrupt governments supported by powerful elites, who exploit people and resources to extract the nation’s wealth for their personal benefit. The bulk of the population suffers widespread poverty, unemployment, religious and sectarian rivalry. Similar uprisings are occurring now in Brazil, where the benefits of its rise in economic power are extracted by the few to the detriment of most of the population. We tend to shrug off these events assuming it cannot happen here, but is that true?

Although our system of government is presented as a representative democracy, in recent decades well-financed corporate lobbyists have successfully influenced politicians to support policies that benefit the wealthy and the corporations. Following the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations have license to fund political campaigns as freely as individuals, further exaggerating their political influence. The result is deregulation and tax breaks, which benefit corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the middle class. High unemployment allows employers to hire people at low wages, offer few if any benefits, and extract hours of unpaid labor. Jobs often are exported overseas to countries of extreme poverty, which allow cheap labor and worker exploitation. Our unemployment rate is highest among young people. Even those with college degrees, finding themselves with huge debt, must accept low wage jobs. Who are the representatives for these people?

With its laissez-faire approach our government now functions as a corporatocracy allowing corporate leaders and shareholders to extract the nation’s wealth for their personal benefit. The government answers to corporations, corporations answer to no one, and no one answers to the people. Social media foster exploitation through addiction and distraction. Intensified partisan politics and pervasive “us vs. them” attitudes decimate any sense of community and social responsibility. Our deteriorating, underfunded public education system does not produce the thoughtful, informed population, willing and able to participate, to allow democracy to flourish and prevent corporate exploitation.

Corporations use intensive lobbying to limit government regulation and interference in their practices. It is easy for those with money and power to influence politicians, who then use propaganda to hide their true agenda from uninformed voters. As economic benefits accrue to fewer and fewer people, more may become disillusioned, depressed, and desperate, with some resorting to crime, substance abuse, and suicide. Might the negative social impact of government complicity in exploitation and profiteering someday create a crisis here similar to those happening in other countries, where no one answers the needs of the people?

Chained!

In the ongoing government budget debacle the Obama Administration is offering the Chained-CPI as an option for reducing government expenditures. What is the “Chained-Consumer Price Index (C-CPI)” and why should we be concerned?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the CPI to estimate the effects of inflation on the cost of living. They define a market basket of goods and services and periodically calculate the change in its cost over time relative to a base time. The CPI determines the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) to be applied to Social Security benefits, veteran benefits, pensions, and other benefit programs. The CPI also is a factor in determining worker compensation and federal tax rates.

The Chained-CPI modifies the cost of this market basket by assuming that price increases cause consumers to seek cheaper options and therefore, spend less than they would otherwise; e.g., instead of buying a big name brand product, the consumer will purchase a cheaper store brand. Using the Chained-CPI rather than the CPI results in a lower COLA. This is assumed to be a more accurate representation of consumer spending. What is not acknowledged is that the cheaper market basket represents a forced reduction in standard of living.

Government policies, as well as increasing market demands, promote inflation, so the COLA is typically an increase. If defined by the Chained-CPI, the new COLA will be less than one determined by the CPI, reducing increases in wage and benefit payments. It also will slow increases in federal tax brackets resulting in higher taxes for those with increasing incomes.

Each year as prices increase, and consumers opt for a cheaper market basket, the Chained-CPI would reduce the COLA accordingly, and lock consumers into further reduction of purchasing power and living standard. If the Chained-CPI becomes the new standard, some consumers eventually will reach a point where there is no cheaper option. The only option is to do without. This process will drive those on marginal subsistence into further poverty, hunger, failing health, disability, unemployment, premature death.

When asking about my benefits at the local Social Security office, I saw an elderly woman who was retiring from her job as a cleaning woman. She was told that she would receive $512.00/month in benefits. As she lived alone and had no other sources of income, she was entitled to food stamps and a waiver of the Medicare deduction. Even with these additional benefits her income would be well below the federal poverty level of $931/month for a single person. About 15% of the population, approximately 46 million people, are surviving on incomes at or below poverty level. What flexibility do these people have for reducing costs?

If the Chained-CPI becomes the standard for determining COLAs, most of us will be “chained” to a continuous reduction in standard of living, with the poorest, most vulnerable, suffering the most. For them there are no cheaper options.