Let’s Define ‘Income Inequality’
Religion & Liberty Online

Let’s Define ‘Income Inequality’

The saga of “income inequality” stretches on. The young people of the Occupy Wall Street movement now have a website, and President Obama has proclaimed it the “defining issue of our time.” But what IS it exactly? Does it mean that a teacher, a brain surgeon and a garbage collector should all earn the same wage? Does it mean the wealthy entrepreneur should simply give away her money, rather than investing it or leaving it to her heirs?

American Enterprise Institute fellow Jonah Goldberg believes if we’re going to keep talking about income inequality, we’d better figure out what it is. In a USA Today piece, Goldberg says liberals and conservatives view the idea of “income inequality” in very different ways:

As a broad generalization, liberals see income as a public good that is distributed, like crayons in a kindergarten class. If so-and-so didn’t get his or her fair share of income, it’s because someone or something — government, the system — didn’t distribute income properly. To the extent conservatives see income inequality as a problem, it is as an indication of more concrete problems. If the poor and middle class are falling behind the wealthy, it might be a sign of declining or stagnating wages or lackluster job creation. In other words, liberals tend to see income inequality as the disease, and conservatives tend to see it as a symptom.

Goldberg goes on to discuss the inaugural address of Letitia James, New York city’s new public advocate. (I’m not really sure what a public advocate is, but her website says she a “fighter for all New Yorkers.” Beyond that, things get a bit vague.) While addressing the crowd at her inauguration, Ms. James held the hand of a young girl, Dasani Coates, whose unarguably miserable life was recently chronicled in The New York Times. Dasani Coates is an 11 year old girl who lives in a New York homeless shelter, and as the Times piece makes clear, is the most mature member of her family. During her speech, Ms. James

…held Dasani’s hand aloft for emphasis when she proclaimed, “If working people aren’t getting their fair share … you better believe Dasani and I will stand up — that all of us will stand up — and call out anyone and anything that stands in the way of our progress!”

But she also said something interesting about herself. James said her parents were smiling down from heaven as they watched her swearing-in, adding that her mother and father were “without credentials, humbled individuals more accustomed to backbreaking work than dinner parties.” Later, at a reception, she said of her parents, “I made them proud. I just want to inspire others. That’s why I had Dasani with me.”

Goldberg points out the irony here. While Ms. James wants us to believe Dasani and her family are victims of “income inequality,” and that spreading the wealth would help solve her family’s dire and ugly situation, that isn’t the case at all:

Dasani is certainly a victim, but is the system really to blame? Dasani’s biological father is utterly absent. Her mother, Chanel, a drug addict and daughter of a drug addict, has a long criminal record and has children from three men. It doesn’t appear that she has ever had a job, and often ignores her parental chores because she’s strung out on methadone. As Kay Hymowitz notes in a brilliant (New York) City Journal examination of Dasani’s story, The Times can’t distinguish between the plight of hard-working New Yorkers like James’ late parents and people like Dasani’s parents. “The reason for this confusion is clear: In the progressive mind, there is only one kind of poverty. It is always an impersonal force wrought by capitalism, with no way out that doesn’t involve massive government help.”

Is this a situation of “income inequality” bringing down a family? Would this family do better, if only they had more money, given to them by someone with more? Not likely. Strong marriages make strong families, says the data, and strong families tend to be more economically stable, help children do better in school, have higher graduation rates, and higher employment rates.

As Goldberg points out, simply spreading money around won’t help young Dasani. She’s a victim all right, but not of income inequality, but of neglectful parenting. If we’re going to talk about income inequality, let’s make sure we are all talking about the same thing.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.