On Economic Inequality
Thomas Massaro, S.J.
What could a North American possibly add to the momentous global conversation on the ethical issue of economic inequality? It might seem narrow-minded or otiose –even quaint—for an observer from the world’s most affluent society to weigh in with concerns about wealth and income inequality. For over a century, North American social commentators have addressed the paradoxical persistence of profound poverty amidst plenty. Even in a society characterized by mass consumption and (supposed) easy economic mobility, millions languish in deep insecurity or outright squalor, even in prosperous economic times. Of course, the issue of poverty is not identical with the issue of economic inequality, so it is wise to keep in mind the standard distinctions regarding absolute and relative poverty, metrics like Gini indices and the apparatus that guides social science research on distributive shares.
Certainly, poverty and inequality in the developed world differ in scale and scope from deprivation in the global South. In the global North they do not so often kill outright. While few in North America die of starvation or exposure (though millions suffer profoundly from homelessness, poor nutrition and inadequate access to health care), those at the bottom of the prevailing income and wealth pyramid find themselves marginalized in a variety of real and troubling ways. Exclusion from full participation in the life of society, the stigma of invidious comparisons, the truncation of opportunities and life prospects—all take a serious toll on the families and individuals who occupy the lower echelons of an increasingly stratified society.
Nevertheless, no unambiguous consensus has emerged on the urgency of addressing growing inequality in the global North. While there are some positive signs, no responsible ethicist would be satisfied with the status questionis. On the academic side, there has been an encouraging surge of recent work (Thomas Pickety, Anthony Atkinson, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Reich among others) documenting the roots of inequality and the practices and policies that perpetuate it. It appears that all the research we need is readily available. But has it motivated any of us to actually do something about inequality in our midst?
It has been nearly five years since the peak visibility of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The consciousness-raising function continues perhaps in the presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has consistently inveighed against the rigging of our political and economic system to benefit exclusively the super-rich, especially after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United exacerbated the problem of the influence of money in politics. Another expression of critical concern about inequality is the public witness of Pope Francis, who frequently exposes the scourge of economic inequality in his writings and addresses. Religious voices, whether leaders of congregations or in the academic community, play a crucial role in keeping moral issues in the public eye and providing motivation and support for social change. But is the boldest leadership strong enough to leap the hurdles of apathy and fatalism, or to counter the opposition of economic elites who have every incentive to stifle systemic change that would address the wealth gap?
If meaningful change is to come, it must include serious reforms in the rewards system currently tied to work and investment, including the adoption of living wage mandates and tax policies that address capital gains, loopholes and deductions in a comprehensive way. While the prospects for sweeping national-level reforms are dimmed by the gridlock and leadership deficit in the U.S. Congress (the Canadian national landscape may be more promising), there are encouraging developments in various states and localities. Living wage ordinances, regional planning initiatives and local tax reforms offer substantial promise in addressing certain aspects of inequality, e.g, mandatory employer contribution to employee healthcare.
Indeed, it is quite appropriate to focus our anti-poverty and pro-equality energies upon the local level, where the vitality of any society lies in its strongest social ties and memberships. Every serious and action-directed discussion of poverty and inequality will consider the contours of a given social setting, its regional planning, local labor market conditions, displacement of under-resourced demographic groups and de facto segregation into lifestyle enclaves. Further, inequality looks sharply different in a rural economy than in a metropolis and, focusing on urban concerns, no two cities share identical challenges in fostering greater equality. If ethically minded opponents of inequality wish to advocate for better employment policies and encourage wider interchange among socio-economic groups, the fabric of our actual neighborhoods must be considered. I suspect that no determinant of the prospects for reducing inequality in any locality will be more pivotal than progress towards enhanced unionization and more enlightened labor practices of commercial employers such as Walmart.
Social scientists study economic inequality as a condition. Religious ethicists see it in normative terms, as a moral problem. The struggle against poverty and inequality presents a research agenda for all theological and social ethicists, whether their interests lie in public policy, virtue ethics or the full range of moral issues regarding conscience formation and moral development. Addressing the alarming disparities of wealth and income in North America will necessitate serious changes in economic systems and personal choices. Millions are looking to the ethics community for leadership in the hard work ahead.