Bader: Income inequality grows

Anthony Bader

In the past few weeks, the issue of income inequality has become a hot topic once again. The Occupy Wall Street protests brought much attention to the issue back in 2011, and now the issue has resurfaced in the media. Wal-Mart and fast food workers have been protesting low wages, the pope issued an essay denouncing unfettered capitalism, and in a recent speech, President Barack Obama referred to income inequality as the “challenge of our time.”

Whether one thinks this is a problem or just a natural phenomenon, it is a reality. About a month ago, The Washington Post generated a map based on U.S. census data showing how zip codes in America rank in terms of median household income. The map shows many instances of small areas where high income is concentrated and large surrounding areas of low income.

Let me start by saying this: in this country, if you want to start a business to earn a living, you can do that. If you want to go to college and then work for a business to earn a living, you can do that. Both these opportunities are great, and they’re available to almost everyone. However, the reality is that it is much harder for some people to take advantage of these opportunities than it is for others. One major part of what makes it harder for millions of citizens is a low income.

It is extremely difficult for low-wage workers to move up the socioeconomic ladder. In the Post’s article accompanying the income map, Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociologist, points out that opportunity for advancement relies heavily on connections. Many college students can relate to this. I don’t think there is a student at Iowa State who hasn’t had the importance of networking drilled into his or her head by almost every professor.

Klineberg also points out that communities in our time are much more segregated by income than they were in the past 40 years. The result is that people in high income areas with higher rates of college graduates are able to network much more easily than people in low income areas. This provides for continued segregation for future generations.

Upward mobility isn’t impossible for low-wage workers, but it’s not realistic to expect that all of them have as equal an opportunity for advancement that high income and college educated people have. It is also not possible for every single worker to make his way to the very top. Some people still need to work those low wage jobs. Ideally, these workers would be temporary and not people trying to support families.

Wal-Mart has long been the target of criticism for the low wages it pays its lowest income level employees. Wal-Mart isn’t in any way the only business guilty of this, but the company seems to get the most negative media attention in that regard. However, in a capitalist system like our own, Wal-Mart is doing nothing wrong. Wal-Mart needs workers, and it pays workers what it thinks the work is worth. The problem is that these low-wage workers are people with basic human needs who still need to pay their bills, put food on their plates and be able to see the doctor.

Systematic changes are needed to even the playing field. Low-wage workers work just as hard as other Americans. Their inability to move up the economic ladder isn’t due to a lack of motivation, it’s that the odds are stacked against them.

This is a very complex issue, and I’m not claiming to have all the answers. However, I would argue that it is a big enough issue affecting our country that it demands the attention of our government.

President Obama has acknowledged that income inequality is an issue in our country. Hopefully he and his colleagues in Washington can start to come up with a solution instead of simply talking about it. Our government must make this issue a priority in order to reconcile the needs of corporations and everyday workers.

Our own Declaration of Independence states that everyone has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If our government is to hold true to this ideal, it is our government’s responsibility to hold the needs of the people of this country higher than the needs of businesses. People who own businesses have the right to operate their companies and engage in their pursuit of happiness, but not at the expense of the prosperity of millions of Americans.