John Rawls, famous American philosopher extraordinaire, is widely known for his belief that although humans are born into conditions of natural inequality, it is the duty of social institutions to justly combat and rectify these inequalities. One issue highlighting his argument today is income inequality (which, keep in mind, is just one constitutive of net worth. Net worth evidences much larger socioeconomic inequality between classes). Aside from the debate surrounding its existence or lack thereof, income inequality is largely, and perhaps hastily, bifurcated into two camps: the side that believes it’s a natural and morally permissible byproduct of the operating system of capitalism, and the side that believes it is a socially constructed ill that must be rectified by various means and actors. The fact remains that while income inequality is a natural occurrence in any economic system without measures like universal basic income, it is not morally permissible to let a significant portion of a nation’s population suffer under unlivable incomes which fall near, at, and below the national poverty line.
Income inequality is a form of womb to grave systemic discrimination. Rich parents have more time and money to spend on their children’s personal and extracurricular development than do poor parents. Economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane calculate that, between 1972 and 2006, high-income parents increased their spending on “enrichment activities” for their children by 151 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to 57 percent for low-income parents. Low-class families usually live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from countless opportunities their middle and high-class counterparts take for granted, from quality public school education to lack of neighborhood violence to mentorship to family stability to variety and quality of extracurricular activities.
Rich–and even middle class–families can afford to send their children to college; poor families so often cannot. Likewise, children of high-income families can afford to take unpaid internships, which opportunities, both paid and unpaid, stem directly from their involvement in a college network and environment to which low-income, non-college attendees simply do not have access. This gap in college education and high-skilled work experience and training perpetuates the socioeconomic wage gap. Children from middle-class families are more likely to work in adulthood than children from low-class class families (80 percent and 60 percent, respectively, working by age 30). Further, the higher income one’s parents earn, the more likely one is to work and earn higher income as an adult. Measuring only wage and salary earnings, the average man whose parents were in the 97th percentile earns about $60,000 at age 30; the average man who grew up in the richest 1 percent earns more than $80,000.
This institutional inequality relentlessly permeates and ravages our culture. To let such vast amounts of human capital go to waste–to say nothing of human lives for their own sake–is to lose efficiency in long-term national production endeavors. Poor wage growth leads to less consumption, which leads to savings pile-up, which leads to falling interest rates, encouragement of borrowing, and general difficulty in managing an economy. Less income also leads to low productivity, poor health, and low education among those in the low-income bracket, which impacts the national economy as well as individuals and families. Granted, some inequality is necessary to spur economic growth. But according to the 2017 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (A.S.E.C.) of the Current Population Survey, the top 1 percent is living off of an average annual household income of $430,600, while 12.7 percent are living below the national poverty line at under $25,100 in average annual household income. Where is the morality in letting 40.6 million humans suffer in widely unwilled and un-self-imposed poverty while approximately 3 million humans enjoy unneeded, often unused surplus? Economist Edward N. Wolff found that as of 2017, the top 1 percent controls 38.6 percent of the nation’s wealth. Further, the top 20 percent controls 90 percent of the nation’s wealth. If that’s not inequality, please tell me what is.
And we needn’t look far from home to find its effects. We can clearly see socioeconomic discrimination and inequality on our own campus. A 2016 New York Times study found that the median family income of a B.Y.U. student is $125,400. 60 percent of B.Y.U. students come from families in the top 20 percent while only 1.8 percent of BYU students come from families in the bottom 20 percent.
While no individual or entity can rightfully hold anyone morally–or legally–accountable for refusing to care about the poor, as this would interfere with a person’s free will, the fact remains that income inequality is, among other categorizations, a moral issue. It is immoral to let people needlessly suffer when there is a feasible way to make them not suffer, but we cannot require moral action of those who can prevent their suffering. Yet as multiple studies show, including one conducted in 2009 by the infamous psychologist-economist duo Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, accumulating excessive wealth as an ends unto itself does not increase happiness. Kahneman and Deaton analyzed over 450,000 responses to a Gallup weekly survey of households across all 50 states. It turns out that there is an income plateau after which additional money does not increase day-to-day contentment: $75,000 annually. While some will contend that this number must be adjusted for inflation to be applicable today, once inflation-adjusted, this income plateau would still measure far under the current average annual household income of the top 1 percent. As surplus income provides little additional satisfaction for its holders, why not donate some of the extra to organizations and people who would experience great economic and emotional satisfaction from it, given their genuine need of funds? Many financial advisors and consultants agree that once wealth has been acquired, it is most efficient and fulfilling for wealth generators to give it away while living, so that their skills and interested can be applied in ensuring their funds achieve the greatest impact.
All things considered, we can–and must–raise the bottom 12.7 percent to reach a livable income. Toni Morrison, acclaimed American author, professor, and activist, says it better than any can: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’”
We all need to check our privilege. We aren’t in the positions we are by virtue of our personal merit alone. The question now is not whether we should feel guilty for the opportunities our privileges present us, but rather, what we each individually will commit to doing consistently and effectively to ensure at least some of us use our privilege to benefit others without its cushion.