A Conservative Take on Economic Inequality
Up until now, I have mainly discussed the liberal viewpoint regarding economic inequality. This is because I have seen income and wealth inequality as well as stagnant economic mobility in action. It’s easy to blame people for not doing enough to solve a problem or to become angry with a group of politicians for not acknowledging the very issues that those they represent face. It’s more challenging to understand an opposing side’s perspective – although I don’t like using the word “side” when discussing the U.S. since we are, by name, supposed to be united, the reality is that we are deeply divided on several key issues. However, researching both points of view in this argument is critical in truly grasping the topic of debate, in not making rash accusations out of fury, and in having a chance at creating a feasible solution. Because I want to gain insight on the issue beyond the liberal perspective, I attempted to cast aside personal bias for our class discussion and approach the conservative angle with an open mind.
It was difficult to find in-depth discussions on conservative attitudes as the media tends to favor the argument that economic inequality is a significant problem in the U.S. Additionally, many conservatives have denounced economic inequality as a myth or downplayed its impacts on lower to middle class households. After looking over several articles, I came across an interview with a conservative scholar who questions whether the U.S. really has an economic inequality problem. This scholar, named Scott Winship, began his career as a moderate Democrat who believed in progressive solutions to the economic issues in the U.S. Now, he is one of the most prominent academic skeptics of the idea that rising inequality is harming the U.S. In the article, Winship mentions that the key moment in his shift in point of view came for him after the U.S. Welfare Reform Act of 1996 when the federal government began requiring that people work, volunteer, or participate in training to receive certain government support. While he initially figured the reform would be disastrous for the poor, he has since come to think of it as “the best anti-poverty program [the government had] ever implemented.” This surprised me since conservatives tend to favor less government intervention, so I wouldn’t think that this would be a major turning point in his politics. However, I believe that the conservative mindset would require that people work for government aid since it isn’t effective to provide relief with no strings attached. Although this could be difficult on those who need immediate relief, I believe this to be a very rational way of thinking because instead of bleeding our economy dry with no output of productivity, this would lead to a boom in workers with marketable skills and families with sustainable incomes. From what I’ve read, liberals are more prominent supporters of welfare and seem more willing to provide financial aid to those in need. Obviously, this is a difficult matter to discuss since there is no perfect solution when considering children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Though in general, providing people with skills-based training is a more efficient way to both get them on their feet and stimulate the economy.
Winship argues that answering whether or not increasing income inequality in the U.S. is more complicated than what many Americans make it out to be. He acknowledges that inequality has grown but points out that median household income is at an all-time high and that overall poverty is at an all-time low. So, although there is a problem in that we aren’t getting richer at the same rate as we used to get richer, it isn’t as though we are actually becoming poorer either. Questioned about the idea that people at the bottom feel worse because the rich are getting richer, Winship answers that “it’s possible.” He refers to a study conducted by an economist who found that in places where the rich were getting richer, the middle class was more likely to spend beyond their means – likely in order to keep up appearances of affluence in relation to their wealthier peers. However, since we have a lot of economic segregation in terms of residence, only a small number of us live with the top 1%. As so much of the information we receive on economic inequality and wealth disparity comes from cable news, print media, and websites, it’s a likely possibility that we are forming beliefs about inequality that don’t reflect our real-world circumstances.
When asked whether decreasing economic mobility in the US is a problem, Winship asserts that the premise of the question is incorrect as most research “doesn’t indicate that economic mobility in the United States has fallen.” He supports this claim with reference to studies and numerous papers showing that mobility has been flat since the early 1970s. This brings up the point that, if mobility has stayed flat as the share of the top 1% share has risen, then it’s not obvious that inequality is a problem for economic mobility. However, Winship does believe we still have mobility levels that are too low even though mobility hasn’t gotten worse, particularly amongst African Americans. In another study, he found that if African Americans start in the bottom fifth of parental income, about half will remain in the bottom fifth of male earnings when they are adults. Yet, apart from African Americans, levels of mobility in the United States are not actually much worse than those in Europe.
Although economic mobility hasn’t worsened over the past several decades, Winship expresses desire to make mobility a national priority. He believes that we have to focus on younger children due to the wide gaps in test scores by race and income when they begin school. Investing in better quality and more spread-out early childhood education programs may reduce the number of kids who live in poor communities that never get the chance that they deserve to succeed (“lost Einsteins,” as he calls them). Going back to the U.S. Welfare Reform Act of 1996, he views work requirements as being better for the people receiving those benefits rather than being punitive. Since evidence from welfare reform portrays that many people who aren’t working are able to, their incomes would increase and poverty would decrease if they could be encouraged to enter the workforce.
Winship offers some criticism of conservatives in that not enough of them have shown the realization of the extent to which one cannot choose his or her parents, and the breadth to which subsequent inequalities are the result of experiences that children were born into. He notes that conservatives are always looking for the ways to prove that rising inequality is a myth which liberals often use as a point of attack or criticism. However, the policies that liberals tend to pursue in an attempt to increase mobility frequently revolve around just spending more money. Many liberals believe that establishing high tax rates on the top percent of earners would have no downsides and it would greatly reduce inequality. Yet, there would be some unintended consequences of a measure like this. For example, it would take away incentive for innovation and risk which could reduce economic growth which would ultimately harm people of lower socioeconomic status. A large contributor to the political debate is that conservatives are aware that many liberal policies don’t work or haven’t worked which is why they are more hesitant to spend money on government programs. Additionally, there isn’t one obvious answer to increasing economic mobility and decreasing income inequality. According to Winship, conservatives believe that liberals see things as very straightforward in coming up with solutions. This can be frustrating because if they disagree with a policy, then they may just be seen as another conservative perpetuating the belief that economic inequality is a myth. While there are certainly conservative viewpoints that deny the existence of economic inequality, it is important to recognize that there are conservatives who are just more hesitant in endorsing a plan where they spot flaws. There isn’t a clear right or wrong way to approach economic inequality since there are strengths and weaknesses to both liberal and conservative attitudes. The only definite incorrect way to address economic inequality is by attacking perspectives that differ from your own as we will need leaders from both parties to work together in creating a solution.
Kopf, D. (2018, July 28). A conservative scholar questions whether the US really has an inequality problem. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1334456/a-conservative-on-whether-the-us-actually-has-an-inequality-problem/