Work and Livable Lives Conference Explores Income Inequality, Economic Insecurity

Jared Bernstein delivers the Keynote

With income inequality a topic of virtually any political discussion today, it is not surprising that the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital’s recent Work and Livable Lives Conference drew scores of people to Washington University School of Law. 

Students, faculty members, and the public heard presentations from more than 20 economists, political scientists, lawyers, and social scientists from across the country as they explored some of the most urgent economic issues affecting Americans today. 

Presented in partnership with the George Warren Brown School of Social Work’s Center for Social Development; Washington University Center for New Institutional Social Sciences; Washington University’s Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government & Public Policy; and American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences; and with support from the Office of the Provost, the cross-disciplinary conference examined the myths and realities of income inequality, taxation, political power, and economic security. 

Presenters and panelists were: 

  • Jared Bernstein, Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, Washington, D.C. (keynote) 
  • Ray Boshara, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis 
  • Marion Crain, Washington University School of Law 
  • Barry Cynamon, Washington University, Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy 
  • Steve Fazzari, Washington University, Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy 
  • Robert Hughes, Missouri Foundation for Health 
  • Melissa Jacoby, University of North Carolina School of Law 
  • Lane Kenworthy, University of Arizona, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences 
  • Gyanesh Lama, Washington University, George Warren Brown School of Social Work 
  • Susan Lambert, University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration 
  • Gillian Lester, University of California-Berkeley School of Law 
  • Michael Lind, New America Foundation, Washington, D.C. 
  • Sharon Long, University of Minnesota, School of Public Health 
  • Anthony Lo Sasso, University of Chicago, School of Public Health 
  • Ken Matheny, Social Security Administration 
  • Tim McBride, Washington University, George Warren Brown School of Social Work 
  • Yunju Nam, University  at Buffalo-SUNY, School of Social Work 
  • Mark Rank, Washington University, George Warren Brown School of Social Work 
  • Itai Sened, Washington University, Center for New Institutional Social Sciences  
  • Michael Sherraden, Washington University, Brown School of Social Work 
  • Joe Soss, University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs 
  • Dorian Warren, Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs (opening address)
Michael Sherraden

Conference topics included “Strains in the Macroeconomy and Household Financial Fragility,” “Toward Better Measures of Economic Security,” “The American Dream,” “Labor and Employment Policy: Wealth Redistribution and Job Supports,” “Health Policy and Employment,” and “Employment Policy: Job Creation.”  Dean Kent Syverud welcomed the conference participants, Professors Marion Crain and Michael Sherraden made introductory remarks, and Professor Dorian Warren, Columbia University, gave the opening address.

In his keynote address, “Rebuilding an Opportunity Society: The Roles of Policy and Power,” noted economist Jared Bernstein discussed the “vicious cycle” of rising poverty rates and decreasing household income even during times of “economic growth.” The resulting “wedge of inequality” is lowering educational opportunities and economic mobility. At the same time, the wealthy enjoy better access to the political process. 

“The political process is responsive to income,” Bernstein said. “If a group of poor people want change, the chance it will occur is only about 30 percent.” Bernstein also discussed the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of government failure. “If you believe that government is dysfunctional, once you get elected, you are then in a position to prove it!” he said. 

Overall, Bernstein said, society needs to shift from a “YOYO”—“You’re On Your Own”—economic model to a “WITT”—“We’re In This Together”— economic model. “Vast inequalities are pulling us apart,” Bernstein said. “The sooner we recognize the necessity of a WITT mindset, the sooner we will be in a position to fix the problems.” 

Recent populist movements like Occupy and the Tea Party got mixed reviews from participants, underscoring the diversity of perspectives presented at the conference. 

Warren sees “hope” in such movements, as well as a University of Virginia student group’s hunger strike in support of a “living wage” for university employees. “We are starting to have a different conversation about inequality in America,” Warren said. “These groups are setting the agenda.” 

Gillian Lester

Nevertheless, Gillian Lester finds Occupy in particular problematic, as she believes it lacks clear goals or strategy. She referred to the 23 goals laid out in Occupy’s first press release as indicative of the problem. “The Occupy movement lacks a moral claim,” she said, while the Tea Party “hits a moral message with themes like the ‘bailout,’ healthcare costs, and Obama’s stimulus package.” 

However, many Americans who benefit from government social programs don’t recognize that they are doing so. Lester cited a New York Times article which reported that while 57 percent of people surveyed said they had not benefitted from government programs, 94 percent of that group actually used programs like Medicare and Social Security. “Americans don’t understand that they are beneficiaries of the welfare state,” Lester said. 

Marion Crain talks with Dorian Warren
following his address

Similarly, Marion Crain, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law and director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital, sees a lack of awareness regarding the benefits that have been won by longer lived populist organizations: labor unions. Workers take for granted many benefits that exist only because of decades of effort by unions, Crain said—everything from unemployment insurance and Social Security to vacations and paid leave. The trick is helping people to make the connections between government, private enterprise, and tax policy. 

“Virtually no one doubts that there are barriers to ‘livable lives’ in America today, but few can agree on what should be done to remove those barriers,” Crain said. “My hope is that those who attended the conference have a better understanding of these very complex issues and help us move toward consensus.”  

For more information, visit the conference website.  

By Timothy J. Fox