We Can and Must Do Better: A Personal Reflection on Wealth Inequality


By Mark Naison   (July 6, 2015)

The greatest sustained period of economic growth in the US took place between 1941 and 1970 when tax rates on the wealthy were much higher than they are now, when business regulation, especially of the financial sector, was much more rigorous, and when trade unions were much stronger. There are options within the US constitutional framework that could be invoked that will produce far better results that the current social contract, which has concentrated wealth at the top to a greater degree than at any time since the 19th century.

Having grown up in that era in a family of modest means, and having had far greater opportunities that young people in comparable conditions have today, I would hardly call myself a product of a failed experiment. I grew up in Crown Heights, attended PS 91 and Winthrop Junior High School, then went on to Wingate and Erasmus High Schools before going on to Columbia, where I ended up being captain of the tennis team even though I learned my tennis in Lincoln Terrace Park where my instructor was a mailman named Phil Rubell.  My cousin Steven, may his soul rest in peace, had the same experience, playing basketball at Columbia after learning the game in public school night centers

Could that happen today? Highly doubtful, since the parks and public school programs that my cousin and I benefited from have long since been de- funded. We can look to our own history for alternatives to a social order where upward mobility has basically been frozen and where we have a bloated police apparatus and prison system.  Yes, we have made huge strides since my childhood in gender equity, and political representation and cultural influence for people of color, but in terms of economic opportunity for the mass of America’s working people, we have gone backward

Those who thought the suppression of Occupy Wall Street meant the issue of economic inequality had returned to the back burner may have to re-evaluate their position. The no-vote in the Greek Referendum on whether to accept a new round of IMF imposed austerity and the huge support the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders has drawn suggests that conclusion was premature. And when Tim Wise’s new book “Under the Affluence” appears this fall, public debate about the maldistribution of wealth will be further advanced. It will be very interesting about how debates over economic inequality will affect the 2016 Presidential campaign. My prediction- it will not disappear the way it did in 2012.

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