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A Falling Tide: Growing Income Inequity and Child Welfare

March 19, 2012

By Amy Lemley

Last Thursday, I attended the annual California Budget Project’s conference in Sacramento. It was excellent, a great line-up of great speakers who presented information that you won’t find anywhere else. For those of us who are policy wonks, it was nirvana. I knew I was at the right place when I saw a scatter plot and accompanying t-statistic without any apologies on the part of the presenter!

My wonky joy was tempered, however, by the content of the day’s presentations, which focused on the ever widening income gap in California and the United States and its consequences. Given my profession, I honestly didn’t expect to be surprised, but I nevertheless left the conference with a new sense of urgency about income inequality.  Here’s why:

The rich are not only getting richer, they are getting a lot richer: The share of national income earned by the top 1% of households (those that earn at $368,000 or more annually) has more than doubled since 1979, from 8% of the national income to 18%.

The 99% are getting poorer:  The top 1% has rebounded from the recession, while the 99% have not.  A full 93% of the income gains went to the top 1% of earners.  As Timothy Noah explained, that is why it doesn’t feel like an economic recovery to the average worker.

Income inequality persists across generations:  The idea of economic mobility is central to the “American dream.” As the story goes, if a person gets an education and works hard, their income will increase and they will be able to provide a higher quality of life for their family. From the information presented at the conference, that dream isn’t supported by evidence. Instead, the United States is ranked 10th in income mobility among industrialized countries, including many of the social-democratic nations of Europe like Spain and France.

All of these trends are terrible news for child welfare advocates.  As we know, the ranks of the poor are disproportionately made up of women and children, and greater economic trends that stunt mobility and decrease income will hit the poor that much harder.

And inequality is about so much more than money.  As the Equality Trust points out, inequality is bad for everyone (although it is of course worst for the poorest).  Societies with greater levels of inequality are sicker, less happy, fatter, with more people in jail and lower life expectancies across the board.

Efforts to reduce inequality and have everyone contribute their fair share, then, will disproportionately help poor children and their families.  As child welfare advocates, we rightly put our energy and passion into protecting children, creating innovative programs and finding previously unknown resources.

Yet we should also realize that growing, broader social movements to combat inequality are also part of our work (and many of us already do).  As the CBP conference makes abundantly clear, child welfare will not be improved only through the efforts of the Child Welfare system.

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