This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
In America today, the richest one percent hold 42 percent of the nation’s wealth, while roughly a quarter of adults work in poverty-wage or near-poverty-wage jobs. And access to economic opportunity is unevenly distributed across geographies and demographic groups, leaving some families facing increasingly long odds of achieving economic success.
Prominent economists and organizations such as the OECD and IMF, have noted that inequality is becoming a drag on economic growth. But the challenge of inequality is deeper. The widening economic divide challenges the fundamental idea of the US as the land of opportunity, the idea of equal rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. These challenges were explored during the Aspen Summit on Inequality and Opportunity.
The Summit was a packed agenda of rich conversations. (If you missed it, I encourage you to take a look.) Throughout the day, participants offered a diverse range of voices, perspectives, and experiences, considered the many dimensions of the challenge of inequality, and importantly, offered ideas for restoring opportunity.
In one of the day’s powerful conversations, Anne Stuhldreher, director of financial justice for the City and County of San Francisco, and Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, shone a bright light on how fines and fees imposed by local jurisdictions can wreak havoc on the lives of low-income families. As Anne and Starsky highlighted, the imposition of major fines for minor infractions causes economic distress that can spiral into criminal indebtedness and the development of a criminal record. Interaction with the justice system can be both cause and consequence of inadequate economic opportunity and further widen inequalities that already divide communities. Anne’s and Starksy’s conversation closed with ideas of how jurisdictions could adjust their systems, for example by considering income level when assessing fines. And participants, including myself, were challenged to continue asking: How do justice systems intersect with economic opportunity and inequality.
The Summit also included the voices of business. Lata Redy of Prudential described the widening opportunity gap and how companies like Prudential see the path to growth as necessarily based on inclusive policies, practices, and products. Dan Bryant of Walmart shared how the nation’s largest employer is investing in opportunity — by raising wages, tackling income volatility through improved scheduling and financial management services, offering workers opportunities to learn and build skills, and promoting internal career pathways. Both Prudential and Walmart are valued partners as we explore ideas for addressing inequality and expanding opportunity.
We did not just have big business. I was delighted to discuss why good jobs are good business with leaders from two small businesses. Drew Greenblatt runs a small manufacturing firm in Baltimore, and Danielle Vogel runs a small grocery and café in Washington, DC. While these are very different businesses, there was much in common in how Drew and Danielle invest in and reward their workers and contribute to their communities. Both companies engage and motivate their workers, offer training and clear rewards for increased productivity, and provide compensation that includes above-industry-standard pay and benefits their workers value. While Drew and Danielle were clear that their politics are not the same, it was also clear that political difference does not prevent a common commitment to advancing good jobs and a common belief in the importance of decent employment opportunities in strong, vibrant communities.
Elizabeth Acevedo, poet, captured troubling and triumphant experiences with inequality, reminding us that the challenges we discussed are very real and have deep effects on millions of Americans. The Summit was an energizing day that offered food for thought and inspiration for action. The conversations had at the Summit — on criminal justice, job quality, education, technology, science, culture and more — highlight not only the many facets of inequality, but also the many potential pathways to improving the economic prospects in America’s communities. We all have a role to play, a talent to contribute, and a chance to participate in rebuilding opportunity.