Reflections on Income Inequality

If there’s one thing every American can agree on it’s that a fundamental part of our culture is money. The accumulation of wealth is the heart of the “American Dream.” Many like to think of our capitalist economy as the perfect vehicle to achieve that dream. But what if our economic system isn’t as perfect as so many think it is?

There’s been a lot of debate in the last few years about the distribution of wealth in the United States and whether or not our economic system is truly equitable in offering opportunities and incentives to all Americans. I was confronted with a video documentary that showed the current distribution of wealth in the United States; it got me thinking about how substantially unequal our society has become. It may be that having a class system offers incentives for lower classes to work hard and elevate themselves to the upper classes. Indeed, our culture has reinforced the idea that hard work only comes from the desire to make money. But when you look at the disadvantages of the poor in America, or even the middle class, compared to the opportunities granted the wealthy, you start to realize just how far ahead the upper class is, and how far behind the lower classes are.

Socialism has been made into a word of tyranny by the conservative right, but like feminism, gay rights, civil rights, immigration reform, and everything else radical conservatives have demonized, there are benefits in studying the strengths of socialism. No, this doesn’t mean you have to become a Marxist revolutionary. But the idea in socialist thinking that people should be offered an even playing field seems rather logical to me.

If I’m a professor at Loras and I decide to start 80 percent of my class at zero points, give 15 percent of my students 25 extra credit points, hand 50 extra credit points to 4 percent of my students, and leave a whopping 500 extra credit points to the remaining 1 percent, I doubt I’d be employed for very long. The reason for my termination would be that I was ignoring the intelligence, work ethic and abilities of my students, and giving a small percentage of them better grades, regardless of whether they earned them.

The immediate reply to this argument is that those who are rich worked hard and made their way to the top. Although this might be true in some cases, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of millionaires and billionaires didn’t start off in poverty. Being born into a rich or even middle-class family puts an individual on a playing field far above those born into poor households. This is the problem of income inequality. If the poor aren’t given adequate means of attaining good schooling, healthy lifestyles and job opportunities, they become locked into their social class. The same could be said for the middle class. The absence of social mobility is the primary reason we need to reevaluate how we want wealth to be distributed in our country.

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