I'm recently back from Brazil where I headed up a major United Nations project. What struck me most was the excitement surrounding the government's Zero Hunger program and the dramatic progress the country has been making in reducing poverty and inequality.
By contrast, when's the last time we've heard anyone in our government even mention the word "redistribution?" It's a no-no.
The inequality issue in our country, however, is not difficult to grasp.
Income inequality is higher in the United States than in any developed country in the world. In the past 30 years, the top 1 percent of households have increased their income by 275 percent, more than 5 times more than the middle class. The gap between the richest 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent in the U.S. is greater than it's been since the 1920s.
Where in the U.S. has income inequality increased most rapidly? New England.
The U.S.government is actually doing something substantial right now to help address economic inequity -- ObamaCare -- but the government has put the word out that the word "redistribution" must not be used.
A recent study has found that there is a strong association between economic inequality and disagreement/contentiousness among our politicians. The smaller the gap between rich and poor, the more moderate our politicians; the greater the gap, the greater the disagreement between liberals and conservatives.
What can we do about it?
Step 1: Let's go to the Robert H. Gibson River Garden at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 9, watch former Labor Secretary Robert Reich's landmark film "Inequality for All," and talk about it together afterwards.
Most of us would agree not only that income inequality is bad for the economy, but also that such inequality in a society based on principles and ideals is just plain wrong. But what's interesting here is that while, at the national level, Reich has felt thwarted, we, here in Vermont, can make headway on this issue -- in the same way that we're taking the lead in so many ways.
(In Bangladesh, a few months ago, I was stuck in traffic with a government official, and, amidst her complaints, I asked her to look around and count the number of billboards she could see. She counted 39. When I told her they're against the law in my state, she was incredulous. Is Vermont something special or what?!)
As Reich indicates, there's plenty that can be done about our inequality problem, starting with the minimum wage -- which is now $7.25 an hour. That represents 37 percent of the median full time wage in the U.S. In 1968 that percentage was 55 percent of the median wage. If we raise the present minimum wage to 55 percent, that would equal $10.78 -- three and a half dollars more.
The worry has been that if labor is more costly, employers will hire fewer laborers. There's now clear evidence that that isn't the case. (Note: We also have to index the minimum wage to inflation; i.e. if prices go up so does the minimum wage. Once again Vermont is taking the lead.) And, beyond the minimum wage, we can raise taxes on the you-know-who, expand government assistance for lower income workers, spend more on pre-school and technical education -- and generate more affordable higher education plus stronger collective bargaining laws and non-discrimination protections.
On the subject of "Inequality for All," let's not forget gender inequality. Women's annual earnings are 77 percent of men's -- virtually no improvement in the past decade.
And wait, there's still more.
Let's not forget that wealthy commercial farmers get billions of dollars every year in farm subsidies to grow more crops than we don't need -- while the House of Representatives is proposing cutting food stamp benefits by $40 billion over the next 10 years -- this on top of the $5 billion in cuts just made.
There's a common conception in this country that poverty affects relatively few in the U.S., and that most poor people live in inner cities, receive lots of welfare assistance and don't work hard enough. The fact is that fully 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will fall below the official poverty line for at least one year. That figure goes up to 80 percent if we add in welfare use, near-poverty and unemployment.
Can national income inequality be reduced? You bet. In addition to the Brazil story, we've seen some dramatic reductions in Chile, Peru, Mexico, Greece, Turkey and Hungary.
Finally, one more dimension that Daniel Coleman recently documented in the New York Times: what he calls "the empathy gap." We, the advantaged, are simply less able, these days, to see ourselves in the shoes of less advantaged persons. Coleman argues that we may not be able to reduce the economic gap without also addressing the empathy gap.
So there's plenty for us to think about, and, again, no better way to get started than by watching the Robert Reich film together on Monday. The film is offered by the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Initiative and by the Marlboro College Social Science Faculty and Marlboro College Graduate and Professional Studies.
Jim Levinson teaches at Tufts University and the Boston University School of Public Health and is a co-founder of the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Initiative.