Towards a better understanding of income inequality

Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street…Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags…the politicians said we suffered from overproduction. Overproduction, when 10,000 little children…starve to death every year in the U.S. and over 100,000 shop girls in New York are forced to sell their virtue for bread. (Zinn, 1995)

The above quote could easily be attributed to one of the many critics of the widening income inequality gap in America. In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street protest and movement in New York City captured the imagination of both the media and population with demands similar to the above quote. However, the reader may be surprised to learn that the above quote is not recent. In fact, it was taken from Mary Ellen Lease at the 1890 People’s Party convention in Topeka, KS. The People’s Party were synonymous with today’s class warfare between Wall Street and Main Street, including the outrage over corporate greed (Zinn, 1995).

It is clear, from both the above quote and from a historical investigation into our nation’s history, that income inequality is nothing new. As social workers, this begs the question: where does income inequality come from, and what can we do about it? In the following pages, I will illustrate that income inequality is an effect from our culture’s ideological, psychological, and philosophical foundation. As a result, crafting a solution requires great care, lest we transition from the role of social workers into political activists and revolutionaries.

Foundations of American Income Inequality

America is a convergence of core ideologies adopted in resistance to oppression from colonial powers. “Life”, “liberty”, “the pursuit of happiness”, and “justice for all” are well-known words since early childhood. Starting in adolescence, these concepts are combined with the Western cultural outlook of individualism, defined by Myers (2010) as “the concept of giving priority to one’s own goals over group goals and defining one’s identity in terms of personal attributes rather than group identifications.” As Myers (2010) also notes, “individualism flourishes when people experience affluence, mobility, urbanism, and mass media,” of which America is in abundance when compared to, say, developing third-world nations.

All of these belief systems merge into one of the dominant ideologies within American culture: meritocracy. The meritocratic worldview suggests that success results from an individual’s talent and perseverance more than any other set of factors. This worldview is reinforced in the surrounding popular culture. “From media advertisements (e.g. Nike’s “Just do it” campaign) to children’s stories (e.g. The Little Engine That Could: “I think I can”) to cultural icons (e.g., Horatio Alger) most Americans are regularly exposed to the central message that individual advancement is possible for anyone through hard work and talent” (Shannon & McKoy, 2007). The logical inference from this ideology is that those who are successful have earned their success, while those who are unsuccessful have “reaped what they have sown.” Although support for a meritocratic worldview is seen in the foundation of American culture, it is also supported by an unrelated social psychological observation called the just-world phenomenon, defined by Myers (2010) as “the tendency of people to believe that the world is just and that people therefore get what they deserve and deserve what they get.” This phenomenon is not just a Western construct, as it has been observed across many cultures throughout recorded human history.

Even if this meritocratic worldview is not endorsed by any one individual, there are few who are unaware of its ubiquitous and pervasive message. Shannon & McKoy (2007) conducted an experiment in which subjects, whom were first divided into two groups, were given a lengthy and challenging task as part a bogus job application. While the subjects awaited a decision about their potential employment, the groups were asked to complete an unrelated task of unscrambling sentences as part of an experiment about cognition. The difference between the two groups was in the content of the sentences. The first unscrambled sentences concerning various subjective statements about meritocratic achievement, while the other group unscrambled neutral statements. After the exercise, both groups were told that their application was rejected and that they would not be getting the job. The authors hypothesized that the meritocratic sentences would serve as a priming effect for the allocation of responsibility when faced with failure over getting the job. As predicted, those that were primed with meritocratic statements were much more inclined to attribute their rejection as just, blaming their failure on themselves, rather than other potential factors (Shannon & McKoy, 2007).

This study provides a hint as to the challenges facing many Americans, including the social workers advocating in their defense. While merit does have an effect, this effect is often overestimated. Other factors, which McNamee and Miller (2004) collectively call “social gravity”, are outside of the individual’s control and can derail any attempts at individual self-fulfillment. Some of these include inheritance, “bad luck”, geographic location, educational stratification, decreased opportunities for self-employment, and discrimination.

The authors stress that the concept of “merit” is not a myth, as factors such as talent and perseverance play an integral role in success. Nor are the authors disparaging the value of meritorious achievement. Rather, it is the belief that resources and opportunities for meritocratic achievement are evenly distributed (McNamee & Miller, 2004).

Reactions to Income Inequality

The social worker, unlike any other profession, sees these injustices from a unique perspective. As a result, social workers are often motivated to go above and beyond the micro view,affecting social policy based on their view from working with the disadvantaged everyday. As Colby, Dulmus, and Sowers (2013) illustrate:

Social workers confront horrific problems on a daily basis that reflect the broad range of social issues that plague and threaten the lives of people and weaken our civil structures. Central to the social work profession’s mission is its work with and on behalf of the most vulnerable, at-risk, and marginalized persons in our communities…Social workers are able to translate this practice wisdom into a powerful tool to influence public policy. Simply stated, practice informs policy by shaping its form and structure.

Of course, feeling a sense of urgency for doing something progressive is not the same as crafting a solution. Various social commentators and professionals have suggested different approaches to the problem. For instance, Goldberg (2013), in his analysis of the problem, prescribes the following:

Reregulation of the financial sector; measures to reduce control of politics by economic elites; and a stronger, more progressive labor movement are needed if we are to reduce the fundamental problem of economic inequality. Policies to reduce inequality include the following: increases in social welfare, both the range of needs covered and the level of benefits, and the assurance of living-wage jobs for all who want to work. With increased income; broader and more adequate coverage of health care, housing, and child care; and availability and affordability of public transportation, lower- and middle-income consumers could meet their needs without feeling obliged to borrow beyond their capacities.

From the perspective of many social workers, these solutions would be a welcome first-step towards alleviating the suffering often observed. However, some go beyond affecting social policy, advocating wholesale changes to our cultural outlook and challenging the philosophical foundations of Western society. McNamee & Miller (2004), after proposing many of the same solutions suggested by Goldberg, also offer the following:

It is generally acknowledged that a pure meritocracy is probably impossible to achieve. What is less generally acknowledged is that such a system may not be entirely desirable. The limits and dangers of a system operating purely on the basis of merit were dramatically portrayed in The Rise of the Meritocracy (1961), a novel by British sociologist Michael Young. Young envisioned a society in which those at the top of the system ruled autocratically with a sense of righteous entitlement while those at the bottom of the system were incapable of protecting themselves against the abuses leveled against them from the merit elite above. Instead of a fair and enlightened society, the meritocracy became cruel and ruthless.

This line of thinking corresponds with Colby, Dulmus, and Sowers (2013): “Conservative criticism of social welfare spending often seems couched in an elitist view, according to which the state is not obligated to provide the opportunity and assistance to the least capable and advantaged.” It also echoes Karl Marx, who predicted a for-profit society that has little regard for the security and welfare of those less fortunate. In many of these quotes, the insinuation is to transform modern society into a socialist state reminiscent of many modern European countries.

However, some would be surprised to learn that not all social workers have a liberal understanding and vision of modern social problems. Reamer (1993) contrasts the sentiments cited above with  opponents arguing that “government interference in the private market inevitably results in a series of unwanted consequences that, in the long run, jeopardize welfare rather than safeguard it.” In particular, these opponents argue that public assistance and subsidies destroy incentives to work, decrease incentives to train and seek advancement, all while burdening the public with higher taxation. This fear is seen in Prussia’s civil code from the eighteenth century, which states that “those who, for laziness, love of idleness, or other irregular proclivities, do not choose to employ the means offered them by earning a livelihood, shall be kept to useful work by compulsion and punishment under proper control…” (Reamer, 1993). Although it would be a grievous error to characterize all who need some form of social welfare as lazy and shiftless, it would be equally incorrect to ignore those whom have utilized the system for ill-gotten gain, all to the detriment of the public who finances such behavior.

Reamer (1993) plants these two opposing viewpoints as polar opposites in a range of political philosophy about social welfare. Citing Gilbert (1983), Reamer describes a range that includes such viewpoints as the syndicalist socialist, who supports some forms of intervention to enhance social welfare, while still possessing suspicions about government bureaucracy. This viewpoint can be seen in Gardels (2013) declaration that “soaking the rich alone is not going to renew the clogged meridians of mobility and opportunity for most Americans. In the end, a society only works if everyone who shares the benefits also bears the costs”

Another viewpoint cited by Reamer (1993) is the classical capitalist, who supports some form of public assistance, but believes that such assistance should be kept to a minimum of food, clothing, and shelter, mostly for preserving the public health. An example of this view is the economist Gregory Makiw (2013), who demonstrates that social inequality in traceable to many causes beyond unequal opportunity:

In particular, parents and children share genes, a fact that would lead to intergenerational persistence income even in a world of equal opportunities. IQ, for example, has been widely studied, and it has a large degree of heritability…of course, IQ is only one dimension of talent, but it is easy to believe that other dimensions, such as self-control, ability to focus, and interpersonal skills, have a degree of genetic heritability as well. This is not to say that we live in a world of genetic determinism, for surely we do not. But it would be a mistake to go to the other extreme and presume no genetic transmission of economic outcomes.

The True Role of the Social Worker

My hope in the preceding pages is to highlight a few salient points. First, income inequality has a long history, one that is not easily remedied, especially in light of current generational efforts. Second, the wide range of viewpoints concerning cause and effect demonstrates that the question is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. Remedies that include income redistribution and an expansion of social welfare services will always be met with resistance for reasons already stated. Furthermore, such blanket remedies without restriction ignores the positive effect of our current system, such as increased invention and the freedom we all have to live without oppression, whether it is political or social in nature.

If we are to be true advocates for those we represent, then we, as social workers, must proceed into the future with wisdom. This starts with a recognition that our viewpoint must always begin from the micro view. Continually monitoring the status of those we serve, collecting data concerning ongoing situations, compiling that data into information, and transforming it into useful knowledge is a critical part of our profession.

If knowledge is the sum of the information available, then wisdom is the inclusion of various alternative viewpoints, along with the facts and realities those viewpoints represent. An example of this at the mezzo level might be the acceptance of current funding levels for a health clinic, due to current economic stressors in the community, even while seeking new and alternative sources of funding. At the macro level, this might include a recognition that, although advocacy for the disadvantaged should never cease, it should not, at least in a professional capacity, include political revolution, regardless of our personal viewpoint. Helping the disadvantaged should not necessarily include the wholesale changing of the rules to accommodate the least capable. Such activity is punitive of those who excel.

Perhaps most of all, instead of focusing on sharing our knowledge and perspectives regarding social work, we might better serve those we represent by focusing on sharing our passion for our profession. By realizing the personal benefits from serving others, more might be persuaded to join our cause, thus increasing altruistic motives and elevating our species overall.


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