Dealing with Inequality

December 7, 2011
By Stephanie Schorow, Harvard Gazette

Asking the simplest question amid a sea of statistics about income gaps and metaphors about rising tides and economic ladders, Harvard Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood stumped a session that was called to discuss “The Growing Challenge of Inequality.”

“What are we going to do about it?” Ellwood asked at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Thursday (Dec.1). Suppose, he said, a member of Occupy Wall Street came into the session and said, “ ‘I want to change inequality in America.’ What should we do?”

A moment of silence greeted the question, and then William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, took the plunge.

“The question is: What can we do realistically, given the present economic and political [reality],” Wilson said. “I would love to strengthen the nation’s equalizing institutions … institutions that I think played major roles in the broadly rising economics in all groups.”

That includes quality public schools, minimal wage, and health care legislation, he said.

Wilson sounded a theme that was repeated through the discussion: that the period of 1947 through 1970 was a time of great equalization in income level, when it seemed that a rising tide did lift all boats. Unions were stronger, tax structures were different, and “there was a regular increase in the minimum wage,” Wilson said.

Lawrence F. Katz, the Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics, cited numerous statistics that underscored recent changes in the U.S. economic structure. “Any way you slice or dice data on income or earning, you’ve seen large inequalities of income in the last 30 years.”

Painting an ominous portrait of how family life is affected by economic inequality, Kathy Edin, professor of public policy and management, noted that the higher proportion of unstable and complicated family life (divorces, remarriages, mixed families) among lower-income groups may have “far-reaching and negative implications for kids’ well-being, especially for boys.” The divorce rate among people with upper-level income is now about that of the 1960s, whereas divorce rates are growing among lower levels.

If education is a key to improving the economic status of the poor, the very system of funding public education by each city or town, which creates great disparities, has to change, said Edward Glaeser, the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics. He sounded a cynical note, by referring to American ethnic fragmentation and insular political institutions. “That combination is still very much in place,” he said. Read More

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Panelists (L to R): Dean David T. Ellwood (Moderator); Lawrence F. Katz, Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics; Kathy Edin, professor of public policy and management; William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor; and Edward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics.

Photo Credit: Jon Chase

“The question is: What can we do realistically, given the present economic and political [reality],” Wilson said.