Reflecting on a year of inequality
What I've learned writing for a year about American Inequality
I’ve been writing about inequality for a year now and I’ve learned a few things along the way. The problem is much bigger than some people have lots of money and some people don’t. Instead, inequality in Americas means that some people die younger, some children don’t learn math, some people breathe pollution all day, and some people go hungry each night. Most importantly, the people who face one of these challenges usually face many challenges. The weight of inequality in America increases in layers at a rapidly growing rate.
I was able to connect with an amazing community of politicians, policymakers, academics, labor organizers, and student activists over this past year. Everyone had change they wanted to make in their community. I often had state and local politicians reach out after articles saying, “I’m so glad I now have the hard data to prove what my community has always known anecdotally.”
I’ve also connected with communities who are really struggling with these challenges. After I published a piece on internet access and inequality, one reader reached out and said how much the piece spoke to him and made him feel like he wasn’t alone in his challenge. He sent me an email saying, “I recently moved from Rock Hill, SC. It's a small city, about 20 minutes outside of Charlotte, NC, but a company by the name of Comporium has a monopoly on the area and has the worst internet that I have ever experienced. Our internet would literally cut out several times a week and they never had an explanation.“
In all, the articles have been read by more than 50,000 people. The pieces have been re-published in 9 different journals (some of them even in hard-print). I’ve been able to collaborate with 3 different authors. And I’ve analyzed more than 30 million rows of data from 15 different government agencies.
But for every stat that I highlight in American Inequality, I also try to make sure to weave in real stories of real people. I wrote about Melissa Nootz, whose daughter had lead in her blood from living next to a superfund site; about Alfred Carpenter who was unable to get his life on track due to a bad credit score; about Peggy Fleming who couldn’t read and as a result her children struggled to read as well; and about Marie Bolden whose son’s struggle with mental health has left him unemployed, addicted, and stuck in cycles of poverty.
Oglala Lakota County and the worst inequality
Inequality is deeply intertwined with a lot of confounding factors.
The same counties appear over and over again at the top of the charts and and at the bottom of the charts. Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota has the lowest credit scores, the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of severe housing challenges, and lowest median income.
On the other end of the spectrum, Summit County, Colorado has the lowest rates of cancer, the longest life expectancy, and one of the highest median incomes in the country.
John Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance
What if you were in a waiting room before you were born, and you didn’t know which room you could get called into that would start your life? You could get called into a massive, beautiful, opulent room with a supportive community all around you - or, you could be called into a neglected, decrepit, and crumbling room with few resources. What if you could change the rooms around, so that you could reduce the risks or getting called into one of the neglected rooms? Would you change things, or would you risk it for the chance of wealth?
Before you get called into one of the rooms, philosopher John Rawls explains that you are in the ‘Veil of Ignorance’. You don’t know what path you will get, but you know the paths that exist.
The concept of the Veil of Ignorance was front and center in my mind as I would write the ‘Path Forward’ section of every article. This section was designed to highlight private, public, individual, and nonprofit solutions to reducing inequality.
If you didn’t know whether you would be born in Oglala Lakota County, SD or in Summit County, CO - what changes would you want to make to ensure you still lived the best life possible? If you didn’t know whether you would be born Black or White, male or female, healthy or sick - what would you do before you or your children got called out of the waiting room?
Where the paths forward converge: cash + community + data
Of the 62 solutions that I’ve outlined in different articles, here are the 3 that I’d take on. These are the ones that go the furthest and are correlated with the most issues.
Give communities unrestricted cash - As great as food stamps, housing vouchers, and new market tax credits can be, unrestricted cash is incredibly powerful for helping communities grow. We don’t always know the inequality challenge that households are most struggling with, and so un-earmarked money can help them best spend the funds as they best need it. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) are some of America’s most successful poverty alleviation programs because they do just this. I believe that people are good and want to change, and believe that fears of ‘improper spending’ is paternalistic and misguided.
Location is everything - Raj Chetty has been my #1 inspiration in this work and has done game-changing research on the impacts of moving-to and learning from better-off zip codes. But right now rent destroys paychecks, public school districts are highly unequal, policing practices are highly disparate depending on who you are and where you live, and Americans are moving at the lowest rates in 7 decades. We need to make it easier for Americans to live in and benefit from better communities. We need more housing voucher, more moving-to-opportunity (MTO) credits, and fewer job-lock standards in the private sector.
Collect better data on social problems - We tend to do a cursory glance into these struggling communities and data is seriously lacking on the challenges of inequality. I’ll note that this type of work would not have even been possible a decade ago and that the push towards digital government services and open data portals has been absolutely tremendous for helping shed light on these challenges. But many agencies hide their data, don’t share it, or don’t collect it and this needs to change so we can prove where we need to dedicate resources.
Send to friends, find collaborators
Inequality touches all of our lives, in big ways and small. If you know others who care about these challenges or want to make some change in the world to reduce inequality, please send them this article. If you know someone who wants to write about inequality or who wants to work on their data science skills, please send them this article. If you know a publication that would be interested in republishing a piece or collaborating on a new series with this data, please send them this article.
This work takes time. It is technically difficult and requires a level of care to make sure the message is right. I’m always looking for people to help improve the message and find meaningful problems to cover. Send them my way.
American Inequality would be dreadfully worse without the help of Rebecca Robinson and Shaye Roseman. They are the best team that I could’ve asked for and I’m incredibly grateful for their support week after week.