By Daphne Stanford
What will be the fate of income inequality here in the United States over the next few years? The news generally isn’t good, but we can’t give in to hopelessness and despair. That is, we should support public policies that work in the interest of low-income children and adults. If you weren’t aware, here’s a sobering statistic: More than 43 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line; a full third of those people, around 14.3 million, are children.
Although it feels like an overwhelming topic, a few different arenas are significant in their relevance to recent news and progress on the public policy front: new trends in workplace flexibility, the shrinking middle class, and the complicated nature of housing availability.
Workplace trendsWith all the recent talk about workplaces becoming more flexible and making remote time a standard part of job descriptions, I can’t help but wonder what this new trend looks like in action. Is there an average demographic profile for the type of employee who appreciates this new flexibility the most? Are some workers harmed by the expectation of productivity, regardless of location?
As the New York Times reports: “Workers who spend none or all of their time out of the office reported feeling equally engaged last year. Those who spent 60 percent to 80 percent of their time away from the office had the highest rates of engagement.”
Contrary to what one might expect of older workers, AARP found that 74 percent of older Americans want to work flexibly and 34 percent would like to work from home. But that statistic feels incomplete, somehow, when coupled with another stat about younger employees: “68 percent of job seekers who are millennials said an option to work remotely would greatly increase their interest in specific employers.”
It would follow, then, that there appears to be more enthusiasm for workplace flexibility and remote work among younger employees than among baby boomers and older adults. Perhaps it is more complicated than age. The preference also seems connected to workers’ relative ease with mobile technology like smartphones, mobile apps, and remote communication platforms like Skype and Slack. According to Rutgers University, a 2015 Gallup survey found that 37 percent of respondents telecommuted, compared to 9 percent in 1995. And experts think telecommuters will reprsesnt close to 50 percent of the workforce by 2020.
Perhaps the breakdown in age is not as wide as the gap between genders. A recent series in the Atlantic examined the issue of work-life balance in light of raising children — emphasizing the enormous drop-off that occurs with many working women when it comes time to choose between parenting and a career. The problem is that it’s simply not economically viable to continue climbing the proverbial corporate ladder if there are children in the picture, due to the exorbitant price of child care, as well as the lack of workplace flexibility. More remote work options would likely help the situation immensely, as well as more affordable child care.
Affordable housingThere simply doesn’t seem to be enough affordable housing to accommodate everyone, and the problem isn’t limited to low-income households. As CNN reported, 11 million people in the United States spent at least half their income on housing last year, while 21.3 million people spent 30 percent or more of their paycheck on rent. Many people work more than one job to get by.
Part of the underlying problem in many formerly affordable areas is the average housing cost — whether it be in the form of rentals or home ownership. This issue is so pressing across America that many are calling it an affordable housing crisis.
The situation is a bit less dire if you happen to be an artist of some kind looking for housing in a big city. For example, some of the most affordable rental housing in Pittsburgh consists of rent-controlled apartments for working artists. But this kind of subsidized housing is not without controversy: Some argue that housing for low-income artists in places like Minnesota serves mostly white people, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last year.
Understandably, this type of observation is more than a little controversial and problematic, if it is true. As Jessie Van Berkel of the Star Tribune reported, Angie Hall Sandifer has never seen another black woman living in the Northern Warehouse Artists’ Cooperative, where she resides. Similar stories have played out in urban artists' communities across the country. Although New York City’s Soho and Lower East Side were once sketchy neighborhoods filled with affordable working artists’ lofts, gentrification has made these areas utterly unaffordable for working artists today.
NPR’s Code Switch attempted to tackle the problem recently, noting that even though buying a house should be a better deal than renting, these days — due to high rental rates — many people who would ordinarily consider buying can’t because of new, tighter lending standards. However, at the end of the proverbial day, the crux of the problem is that people with money want to live in the most popular big cities, and an influx of people with money is largely what is driving rents up in places like New York and San Francisco.
The shrinking middle classIf the above details are any indication, race relations in the U.S. will continue to be a problem. The recent spate of police brutality involving African American men is also indicative of this fact, and according to University of Southern California, 61 percent of Americans think that race relations have deteriorated. Consider the continuing problem of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, and it's easy to see how social justice concerns enter into the day-to-day realities of African Americans in much of the U.S.
As the Detroit Metro Times reported last month, the lead that contaminated Flint’s water supply not only caused massive damage to an already crumbling infrastructure, but it was also responsible for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed at least 12 people and sickened many others. Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School, contends that "nothing about what happened in Flint was accidental," further arguing: “But for our country’s failure to understand the root cause of municipal distress in the context of structural racism, the Flint tragedy would never have occurred.”
In other words, the stark reality seems to be that lack of money equates to lack to political clout — which leaves us where we are today. The city of Flint now plans to permanently stay with Great Lakes Water Authority, a less costly alternative than the nearby Karegnondi pipeline. Water still needs to be run through a filter or boiled in order to be safe enough to drink, and water flowing into some homes still far exceeds safe lead levels.
If what happened in Flint is an example of what lack of political clout can buy American citizens, a bleak picture of equality emerges -- one in which people aren’t truly equal but are only as valuable as their net worth. Daniel Moss of TruthOut argues that water should be accessible to everyone, similar to the way education is considered a public good — as in Ecuador and South Africa, where access to affordable water is written into the national constitution; after all, the U.N. General Assembly recently declared affordable water to be a human right.
Therefore, we would all pay into the costs of water access, rather than assigning the burden to individual households. Part of the argument is connected to the distribution structure of water usage: Moss reported: “In the U.S., energy producers use just shy of 50 percent of our nation’s water, followed by irrigators. Households use about 1 percent.” Considering how little households use, when compared to utility and agricultural entities, this restructuring seems only fair.
* * *What constitutes ‘public health’ is relative: does health refer merely to cholesterol levels and cancer statistics, or is it also connected to an overall sense of well-being that permeates those who manage to fit an hour of meditation into their schedules, each day. Alternately — beyond physical health — should public health refer to our collective sense of wellness that can only exist if basic needs are met? Do we have clean water to drink and good food to eat? Do we have a stable place to live and a job that pays the bills and also allows us time to attend to our lives outside of work?
These are the questions with answers that tend to divide us into one of two proverbial camps consisting of the haves and have-nots. We are left, then, with more questions: how can each of us contribute to a collective movement to move some of these realities and statistics closer to ideal situations? There are so many layers, but there is effort we can make on both private and public levels. In addition to effecting change within private companies and corporations via CSR policies, internal HR policies, and social dynamics, we must mobilize as a collective group to raise our political voices. We should express our opinions to our representatives, rather than keeping them to ourselves. Now is not the time for silence.
Image Source: USDADaphne Stanford hosts “The Poetry Show!” on KRBX, her local community radio station, every Sunday at 5 p.m. A writer of poetry, nonfiction, and lyric essays, her favorite pastimes include hiking, bicycling, and good conversation with friends and family. Follow her on Twitter @TPS_on_KRBX.