Inequality for All?

Reich: Investment in Education ‘A Public Good’

 

In 1999, 29.7 percent of Nebraska households were labeled as ‘low income’ by the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2012, that number had grown to 33.9 percent.

In 2000, 10 percent of Nebraska children were living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. By 2012, that number had nearly doubled, to 17.9 percent.

Those numbers illustrate the “hollowing out of the middle class” as more Nebraska – and American – families slip out of the middle class and into poverty.

The causes of the shrinking of the middle class were explored in “Inequality for All,” a documentary film about income inequality and the vital role the middle class plays in the American economy. The film featured the work of noted economist Robert Reich, who served in the cabinet for presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

NSEA was one of a dozen organizations to sponsor a late January showing of the film in Lincoln, featuring a visit, via Skype, with Reich. NSEA also sponsored a showing in Omaha on Feb. 6.

 

Growth at the Top

Reich told the audience that about 95 percent of the growth in wages since the recovery from the recession have gone to the top 1 percent of wage earners.

“But,” said Reich, “even those top wage earners would do better if the income were spread more evenly.”

He suggested three steps to begin to balance the inequality in wealth:

  • Raise the minimum wage – he noted that 80 percent of Americans feel the wage needs to be raised.
  • Limit the size of banks.
  • Limit big, corporate money in politics.

He said Americans are beginning to understand the problems caused by income inequality, and will eventually solve the problem.

“We’ve done it (solved big problems) before. I think we will do it again. The question is, when will we reach the tipping point? I think we are very near that point,” he said.

One of the causes of the widening income gap is big money in politics, which favors corporations.

He called the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that declared corporations “people” for the purpose of campaign contributions a “disgraceful, shameful decision.” Much of the money in politics today, he said, is coming from a handful of billionaires.

Unions, on the other hand, said Reich, “fit very well in the center of what has happened.”

He said that America began enjoying wide-spread prosperity in the 1950s when one-third of American workers were unionized.

“The growth of unions in the 1950s mirrored the growth of the middle class,” he said. “With the decline of unions starting in the 1980s marked the start of the decline of the middle class.”

Investment in education – from early childhood to higher education – is worth the cost. Yet cuts to public funding have raised the cost, he said, citing California as an example. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was no tuition to California’s public universities. By the late 1970s, the cost was $700 a year. Today it is more than $15,000 annually.

“Higher education is not a private investment. It is a public good,” he said. “Reversing our investment in higher education is shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Reich urged the audience to ask candidates two questions:

  • What, exactly, are you going to do about jobs and the economy?
  • How will you get big money out of politics? What exactly are you going to do?

The documentary is now available on Netflix and from other sources.