Monday, December 31, 2012

Income inequality update

Writing in the New York Times, Jason DeParle -- author of the highly-recommended American Dream -- profiles three young women from poor and struggling families in order to tell a larger story about income inequality. Academically gifted, all three women see higher education as their means of realizing a better life than that of their parents. As of DeParle's writing, however, none had -- despite enrolling in college -- managed to actually graduate. 

Assuming the women do not later head back to obtain their diplomas, the most likely outcome is that all three will languish in relatively low paying jobs with few prospects for advancement. Their incomes will likely mirror that of their parents, while those in their age bracket from wealthier backgrounds who successfully complete college and graduate school are good bets to obtain jobs with much higher incomes. The end result will be that income inequality is perpetuated and perhaps even widened. 

So how is this explained? Who are the culprits behind this phenomenon? Did the country's one percenters dispatch their minions to throw these women's ambitions off track? Did a Koch Industries-funded SuperPAC enact public policy changes that made college education an impossible dream? Did Mitt Romney place them in his infamous binders? Of course not. Rather, the reasons for their inability to achieve their collective goal (at least as presented in the article) are more mundane: poor parenting (none of their girls had a consistent father), bad choices (especially with regard to boyfriends) abetted by ignorance and simple misfortune. 

To the extent public policy played an obvious or direct role, it was perhaps found in the low quality of the government-run school the women attended:
Ball High [School] was hard on goals. In addition to Bosco, a drug-sniffing dog profiled in the local paper, the campus had four safety officers to deter fights. A pepper spray incident in the girls’ senior year sent 50 students to the school nurse. Only 2 percent of Texas high schools were ranked “academically unacceptable.” Ball was among them.
Of course, if they had access to vouchers in order to attend private schools, better options may have presented themselves. Notably, the political left -- the loudest voices in decrying income inequality -- typically leads the opposition against such measures.

While DeParle's article in no way offers a comprehensive explanation for income inequality, the story he tells does not appear to be terribly unusual or exceptional (aside, perhaps, from the level of drive possessed by these teenage women). Is it really so hard to believe that much of what drives income inequality is simply a product of choices and upbringing?

And if one acknowledges this, then how does it follow that the logical solution -- so often presented by our friends on the left -- is higher taxes on the rich? How would that in any way change what the article describes? Then again, changing people's behavior patterns and decision-making -- something that would have made an actual difference in the article -- is difficult, while tax increases are comparatively easier (and give politicians more money to play with). 

The reality of income inequality continues to be this: few people, if any, are poor because the rich are rich, income inequality is at best (worst?) a symptom of larger problems in society rather than a cause, and higher taxes on the rich simply represent a long-standing left-wing wish list item than a solution to the phenomenon of income inequality. 

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