As Americans, we cling to the idea that a rising tide lifting all boats is the means to end the growing gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans.
But the hard truth missing from this image is that not all boats rise equally. History has shown that the ones at the top will rise higher and faster than the ones at the bottom.
And yet as a nation we continue to insist on this notion of equality, on the idea that if the economy does well overall, that will fix inequality. Such thinking willfully ignores the deep disparities that exist in wealth, income, employment and every measure we would use as a marker of well-being between poor communities of color and everyone else.
Treating everyone the same only sustains these disparities. Consider the tragic rates of suicide among Native American youth who see no hope for their futures in remote reservations where chronic unemployment and illness are the norm. The skyrocketing numbers of unemployed among African Americans, especially men who are more likely to be targeted by the criminal justice system than a job training opportunity. The millions of Latino immigrants who toil for sub-minimum wages and live in the shadows for fear that they or someone they love will be deported.
These are the Americans whose boats will not lift as fast or as far. These Americans know that if we treat everyone the same, these disparities will remain. Instead, now is the time for equity: a focus on equality of outcome, rather than equal treatment on top of an unequal playing field.
And I’m not alone. We are hearing this call grow louder in the voices of those most affected. We hear it in the growing chorus that Black Lives Matter and the insistence that Americans see the true impact of Wall Street’s greed through the lens of the poor communities, especially those of color, that are hurt the most.
We see the anger and frustration that has arisen in historically disinvested communities giving way to action. Those who live in cities or towns with concentrated poverty are coming together to show their fellow Americans what we can no longer willfully ignore. Native American, African American, Latino and rural poor whites are rallying around the need for intentionally targeting investments in their communities.
In Iowa in January, they called attention to the need for targeted investment during a forum that included two presidential candidates, and now they’ve turned to Reno, Nevada, where jobs have disappeared and no new economic engine has replaced the old economies that were based on natural resources.
Systematic disinvestment has left communities lagging without even the most basic of services. In Indian Country, where chronic depression, addiction and staggering unemployment have contributed to 40 percent of young people between the ages of 14 and 25 committing suicide. Autumn Harry, 23, of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, knows firsthand that everything, even access to basic resources, such as water and healthcare, is a struggle for her people. Small luxuries that other Americans take for granted are unavailable to her. An environmental science major at the University of Nevada, Reno, Autumn does not have access to a computer and has to travel 40 miles if she needs to use the Internet for school. Autumn will be one of the speakers at the Reno event, dubbed the Real Solutions for Real People Summit.
How can communities like Autumn’s be equal to other more well-off places when they don’t have basic resources just to survive?
Slowly and steadily, the collective voices of people such as Autumn are reverberating. We hear echoes of these voices in how presidential candidates have spoken about the urgent need to invest in infrastructure and jobs, from a commitment by Bernie Sanders to spend $1 trillion to modernize the nation’s infrastructure to a call by Hillary Clinton to invest $275 billion in our crumbling infrastructure and ensure that critical investments are going to the communities that need them most.
Government cannot do it alone. Business has a role to play here, too. Consider electric carmaker Tesla opening the world’s largest battery factory in the outskirts of Reno, which will create an estimated 20,000 jobs and bring $100 billion to the state. Focus groups I have conducted with residents in the area show they fear they will not have access to these jobs, despite the $1 billion in incentives the state of Nevada is giving to Tesla. Here is an opportunity to create a new model for equity by ensuring that some of the area’s poorest residents are trained and have access to the good-paying manufacturing jobs at the plant, and that all jobs associated with the plant provide workers with a living wage.
I realize a call to end inequality, and by extension poverty, can produce skepticism, given our government’s attempts to address this in the past. But past failures should not keep us from acting. Rather, we should learn from the past and develop new strategies appropriate to our 21st century economy.
To do this, we as Americans must stop believing it is unfair to target attention and resources to those who need the most help. In fact, helping those who need the most is true to our founding principles of equity and opportunity. Doing so ensures that we build an economy that works for everyone and truly does allow all boats to rise with the tide.