A Brief Overview of American Socioeconomic Inequality:
Socioeconomic inequality is America’s biggest problem. Whenever there is a financial crisis government policies protect the interests of the wealthy over those of the working class. For a nation so obsessed with the idea of equality, we have been significantly hindered by a corrupt political system. In the early 20th century, America produced the world’s first billionaire, and currently, a shocking 28% of the world’s billionaires are from the United States. Although the federal government did attempt to break up monopolies, the effects of this were negligible for most Americans. The onset of the Great Depression was a catalyst for President Roosevelt to propose the New Deal which fundamentally altered what the government could do to alleviate socioeconomic inequality. However, the New Deal did not have a profound impact on the lives of many Americans of color. World War II and the post war economic boom gave America the boost in industrialization it needed in order to allow many more of its citizens to attain financial stability. Ultimately, the increased industrialization needed for World War II and the post war consumer expansion gave America its greatest increase in prosperity. A larger middle class developed but the ability of capitalism to lift everyone out of poverty wasn’t seemingly possible. Through the liberal agenda of the Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty” to the backlash of the Regan years, the ongoing debate about the role of government in people’s lives and what it should do to catalyze equality remains a contentious political issue. You can read a paper that I wrote surrounding this here.
The History Behind it:
The situation for labor unions was particularly dire in the age of industrialization during the late 19th and early 20th century The Depression made it apparent there was a need to expand the role of government to help Americans survive the economic crisis in the 1930’s. This was the worst economic crisis the world had ever seen and acceptance of a larger role for the government to restart economic expansion became a necessity. Expanding the money supply involves getting America off the strict gold standard crucial to facilitate economic expansion. Huge infrastructure projects, bridges, dams, housing and roads were undertaken by the government to spur job growth. The post war boom helped many white Americans become middle class homeowners but left others behind and resulting in social unrest led to reforms such as President Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. Boom and bust cycles continued through the years of the Reagan administration which rolled back many liberal reforms. Through a prosperous period in the 90’s under President Clinton, the economy was devastated by the “Subprime” crisis of 2008 which led to rising inequality. This economic calamity was related to the selling of unsecured mortgages that failed leading to a worldwide financial crisis. Top down, “too big to fail” remedies bailed out large financial institutions but did little to prevent typical middle class Americans from falling behind economically. Currently the pandemic related economic shutdown has disproportionately affected low wage workers and huge amounts of capital have been poured into our economy. Through government stimulus legislation.
Inequality in America seems to become more apparent each time there is an economic crisis. Historically government responses have almost invariably been aimed at helping business over individuals. The exceptions have been the New Deal during the Depression and more recently the Johnson administration’s War on poverty in the 1960’s. However, both of these government efforts were insufficient to lift many people out of poverty. Major issues in the rise of government intervention in order to change the dynamics of socio-economic inequality can be seen for the first time in the Progressive movement where the problems of the lower classes were at least to some extent publicized. The Progressive movement was a response to rapid industrialization and urbanization in the late 19th century as America took the lead as the greatest industrial power in the world .Outright bribery was rampant in 19th century politics at every level. Inevitably the problem of government corruption became a major impediment to changing the lives of most Americans. It continued to impede efforts for reform well into the 20th century and still exists in less obvious forms today. You can read a paper that I wrote surrounding this here.
The Problem, and How We Can Fix It:
The huge problem of socio-economic inequality has become more acute today with the destruction of significant portions of the economy due to the Covid-19 shutdown. Before this occurred there were obvious signs of economic disparity here in the Bay Area. Homelessness and the soaring cost of living here has created a vision of the future that seems headed for wider gaps of inequality. Higher crime rates show a form of desperation is gripping a larger percentage of the population. Governments at the state and local level have attempted various remedies ranging from outright attempts at some form of universal basic income to eviction moratoriums and rent payback programs in which landlords are compensated in large part by state funding.
At the national level there are a variety of programs ongoing and new ones proposed by Congress. Existing bonuses for unemployment enhancing weekly payments have been renewed into a second year. Extra stimulus payments directly to those not exceeding certain income levels have been continued. The huge infrastructure bill being debated in congress now includes previously unimaginable inclusions of concepts to help the poor. An ultra-wealth tax on net worth rather than just annual earned income proposed by Elizabeth Warren could potentially pay for these programs. Reparations for “redlining”, the practice of segregation in less desirable neighborhoods where people of color have been forced to live are for the first time being meaningfully considered. Raising taxes on corporations and eliminating loopholes for tax avoidance is another method of narrowing the wealth gap. Regulation of lobbyists is something that is absolutely essential to prevent the inevitable corruption of politics that has been prevalent historically. This last point is extremely important because the disreputable nature of political corruption in America is largely responsible for the lack of action to lessen the effects of socioeconomic inequality. You can read a paper I wrote surrounding this here.
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