By Matson Boyd
The pushback against talking about income inequality has intensified. Jackie Calmes of the New York Times finds it coming from both Conservatives and “Centrists”, who instruct us to talk instead about equal opportunity. Many are fighting the pushback and making the case that we should be talking about inequality, for example Robert Reich notes that worsening inequality reduces consumer demand in the economy which ultimately reduces opportunity. And while this is true, Reich’s counterargument and many others have missed the real key here – income inequalities create inequalities of opportunity, by their very nature they are inseparable.
To state the obvious, money doesn’t just buy us leisure, but opportunity as well. Try for a minute to put yourself in the shoes of a low-income child. Your school spends about a third as much money on you as a kid would get in a wealthier school district. Your parents can’t buy you the healthiest food or the best medical care, and they suffer from more stress and decision fatigue, which does affect their parenting. I could go on and on, but let’s just stop by saying that if there is any kind of problem at home the parents are less likely to be able to do something about it. A patchwork of government programs can ease the burden somewhat, but without equalizing incomes the only way children from low-income families can actually share an equal opportunity is if children are raised kibbutz style (all together and separate from their parents).
Empirically the relationship between mobility and inequality looks like this:
Some writers have been careful to point out the inseparability of inequality and opportunity. Dylan Matthews of Wonkblog concluded that “The distinction between equality of outcomes and opportunity has some theoretical appeal, but in practice, you get both or neither.” Sean Mcelwee of Salon uses the excellent metaphor of the relay race: “In truth, outcome determines the next generation’s opportunity. Hence, Obama is right to point out that inequality harms the American Dream. Life isn’t a sprint, it’s a relay race. And where one generation finishes, the next begins.”
Why then do so many insist that we only talk about equal opportunity? Perhaps some haven’t realized that opportunity is tied to equality. But the supposed right-wing concern for equal opportunity also shouldn’t be taken at face value. One of the few institutions that can partially compensate for inequality and maintain opportunity are schools, yet we live in a country where it is the norm for rich schools to spend 2-3 times as much as poor schools. Do we see Paul Ryan clamoring to equalize education spending? It’s clear that the Right is not serious about opportunity. Going forward the Left should insist on talking about income inequality and unequal opportunity as one problem, and never let conservatives pretend that they care about opportunity.