In Plain Sight: Pervasive Inequalities

This post will not be filled with statistics about the worst gap ever–yes, ever–in income between rich and poor in the United States or how badly the U.S  fares  among developed nations in the world on inequality measures.

This post will not rail at the moral unfairness or growth of mistrust among Americans as a result of such economic, social, and political disparities.

Now will this post recommend ways for reducing the growth of a two-tiered society.

What this post will do is look at effects of inequality and how they are pervasive, taken-for-granted, and even encouraged in everyday transactions.

There are many obvious examples of inequalities such as the current protests across the nation’s cities over white police officers shooting black men and disproportionate percentages of minority and poor arrested and convicted for “broken window” crimes. Current protests against the police’s lethal mistreatment of African Americans capture the abiding anger and resentment over this historic inequality. In this post, however, I offer only three prosaic ones to make this point about inequalities in plain sight: airplane travel, hospital emergency rooms, and schools.

Airplane Travel

Yeah, I know that this may strike readers as either whining or a silly example but many Americans and international  visitors have flown somewhere on a U.S. airline.  Inequalities are taken for granted. Sure, they are temporary–disappearing when you leave the aircraft–and dependent upon how much money individuals are willing to spend on air travel but, most important, status differences–inequalities–are intentionally designed to incite envy. Let me be specific.

While not all airlines treat customers in the same way, I fly United Airlines and know first-hand about these temporary status differences. First, you have to line up according to whether you are a “frequent flier” and what status you have acquired from United Airlines: Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Global Services, etc.;  those allowed on the aircraft first have the most miles flown (or are business- and first-class passengers who have paid much more for their tickets); they get a crack at the bins for their roller suitcases, packages and coats. By the time the last passengers–economy cabin–are called to board, most of the overhead space has been taken and many annoyed people have to check their roller suitcases and pick them up at baggage claim at their destination.

Then there are the curtains and bathrooms that separate economy from business- and first-class seats. Shall I mention big differences in size of seats and legroom? Forget snacks–juice and soft drinks are free–for United passengers in economy but for those in the big-seat sections, they get multi-course meals. Or the amenities passed out to big-seat passengers on international flights and nothing given to those in economy. Enough. the point is made.

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One passenger had this to say about the class distinctions and inequalities in flight dependent upon how much money you spend for a ticket;

This stark class division should come as no surprise: what’s happening in the clouds mirrors what’s happening on the ground. Statusization — to coin a useful term — is ubiquitous, no matter what your altitude. While you’re in your hospital bed spooning up red Jell-O, a patient in a private suite is enjoying strawberries and cream. On your way to a Chase A.T.M., you notice a silver plaque declaring the existence within of Private Client Services. This man has a box seat at a Yankees game; that man has a skybox. And the skybox isn’t the limit: high overhead, the 1 percent fly first class; the .1 percent fly Netjets; the .01 fly their own planes. Why should it be any different up above from down below?

No, I am not whining. I am describing how inequalities and grasping for status are so embedded into American experience that both appear in plain sight when anyone flies the “friendly skies.”

Hospital Emergency Rooms

Not so for hospital emergency rooms where the inequalities hit you directly in your face and cannot be ignored. These inequalities ares not temporary. They are consequential and reflect the two-tiered system of health care in the U.S.

In ERs the inequalities that appear before your eyes are deeply embedded in the social, political, and economic structures of a market-driven democracy. For anyone who has had to go to a hospital ER before or after the Affordable Care Act (2010)–about one out of five Americans have been to an ER at least once a year–some facts become obvious.

*Most of those in need of medical attention are poor and minority.

*Most of those who arrive in ERs do not have health insurance (61 percent) and have no access to medical attention except at the hospital ER.

*While middle- and upper-middle class families–young and old–with health insurance do go to ERs, most  have health insurance. Moreover, they have access to their primary care physician or other medical services while most poor young and old do not have access to alternative medical attention.

 

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The inequalities in access to medical attention in the U.S., even after the Affordable Care Act became law, are apparent to anyone who has spent time in an ER.

Public Schools

I have worked as a teacher, administrator, and researcher in largely poor and minority high schools for the past half-century.  I returned this year to three high schools in two different cities  where I had taught between the 1950s and 1970s to see what changes, if any, had occurred in the past half-century. Sure, there were changes but all three continue after a half-century poor and minority and, for the most part, located in racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods.

I walked the halls, listened to teachers and students, and watched many lessons in each school. What was apparent to any informed observer was that security to protect students and keep order was pervasive:  Each school had metal detectors and security aides sweeping students out of hallways during classtime. Motivational posters urging students to graduate hung from walls on every floor; while there were instances of superb teaching in each of these schools, in most classrooms I observed students clock-watching and half-heartedly following teacher directions; there was compliance in doing worksheets and answering questions but that was about it.  I did see clumps of highly motivated, achieving students (including English Language Learners) in each school but they were immersed in an academic culture of doing the least amount of academic work to pass the course. Student suspension rates ran high, large numbers of 9th and 10th graders dropped out, and low percentages of students graduated. Two of the three high schools had been “reconstituted” twice–yes, twice in the past five years–when the entire staff and principal were removed and had to reapply for posts in each school.

Each of the school districts had initiated projects to revitalize these low-performing schools and progress was in inches, not feet or yards. Each of the districts had portfolios of options available to parents from which to choose: charters, magnets, alternative schools. High-tech hardware and software had been purchased and deployed in the schools I visited. Teachers were being evaluated on the basis of student test scores. High-performing teachers received bonuses. Much district effort to turn around low-performing schools had been made.

Yet, overall, these high schools remained examples of sheer economic inequality in the dollars that districts generated in property taxes, how officials spent that money, and what families contributed to their children’s education. These inequalities became obvious when compared to conditions in other schools.

I say that because I have also been in elementary and secondary schools where mostly middle-class and upper-middle class students, both white and minority, attend. What these districts generate in education dollars may be similar to low-performing ones but the resources families bring to the schools and their children’s lives is far more than many poor families can contribute. Moreover, to sit in classes, walk the halls, listen to teachers and students in these urbanized suburbs reveal that the overall culture and the quality of work performed by both students and teachers differ dramatically. The idea that there is a two-tiered system of schools in the U.S., one for the poor and one for everyone else becomes inescapable. None of this, of course, is new to anyone who has spent time in urban, suburban, and exurban U.S. schools or watched media reports on high-achieving and low-achieving schools.

These three everyday examples that adults and children experience show the sheer persistence of inequalities wrapped into the daily fabric of American life.

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Although economists are divided over the causes and consequences of the huge gap between poor and the wealthy, between the middle-class and the rich, a gap that has grown even larger in the past two decades, all Americans pay a price for this inequality. Distrust between police and minority communities is one cost of inequality that has made current newspaper headlines and television coverage. Loss of confidence in society being fair bites at many Americans when the chances of a black child going to prison are significantly higher than a white child or when corporate leaders pull down huge compensation packages as compared to their typical employee. Or feelings of disgust over political elites passing laws that create tax code loopholes and government-protected share of markets to both increase and protect the sheltered wealth of their supporters. Economic, political, and social disparities are (and have been) in plain sight and the entire nation pays high prices for becoming an increasingly divided society.

Figuring out what to do about this problem of an increasingly obvious two-tiered society has split social scientists. Mainstream economists argue that unjust differences are not the problem because inequalities naturally arise from the rapid globalization of the U.S. economy, increased uses of  technology, and spreading automation. They argue that government intervention can worsen the problem since these larger factors determine what occurs and little can be done to avert inequalities. Efforts to slow down globalization, use of technology, and spread of robotics and automation will only end in even deeper  inequalities. Watching and waiting until the system corrects itself, and it will–they say, is what needs to be done to decrease these differences.

Other social scientists say that the injustice of disparities is a moral hazard in a democracy, made by humans not machines. The problem is that wealth means access to political power. Access to political power means helping friendly legislators and executives at local, state, and national levels gain office. Friendly legislators and executives then jerry-rig the system to further the interests of the wealthy few rather than the majority of Americans. Such dissident social scientists point out that the U.S. political system has been hijacked by the rich and now serves their interests by passing laws that deregulate government oversight and shield their wealth-seeking efforts. They argue that this is a problem made by people with interests to protect. The problem can be solved by political action from the majority.

While I favor the latter point of view, it is clear to me that even framing the problem remains in dispute among economists and other social scientists, many of whom advise top policymakers in making choices about what to do about increasing gaps in wealth and the costs of such inequalities within a democratic society. Those costs of inequality have daily consequences when Americans travel, go to hospitals, and attend school.

13 Comments

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

13 responses to “In Plain Sight: Pervasive Inequalities

  1. I would add to the discussion that levels of airline seating and other programs that have the VIP and other premier distinctions is a marketing tactic that’s been around for a long time to feed into status-conscious consumers. What started off as a way to appeal to customers’ vanity has turned into another reflection of inequality in this country.

    • larrycuban

      The links between status-seeking and rising wealth inequality are strong. Whether status-seeking is innate in human nature or whether the culture encourages it (or some combination of both) is unclear to me but somehow connected. Thanks for the comment, Janice.

  2. JoeN

    Perhaps it is essentially a cultural thing, but spacious airline seats, or the sight of one, completely empty first class railway coach after another, as I walk the length of a UK railway platform to find the few crowded, standard class coaches at the end, never upsets me at all. Equality frightens me much more than inequality: which seems to me to be simply the law that governs our universe.

    But what most engaged me in your post is that when it comes to schooling political, educational and commercial interests have combined to force teachers and schools into a transformational role they can never deliver on. As you noted after visiting the schools, even with investments in people, technology and after one strategic initiative after another, the inequities remain inexorably stark.

    This isn’t an educational problem, it is a political one and while we have a political class in the West predominantly devoid of all values, there seems little hope of addressing the parenting and family issues that are the most insuperable barriers to change.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Joe, for your comments on the “pervasive inequalities” post. I surely agree with your point that the inequalities are a political problem where the will to take action on larger socioeconomic issues is missing.

  3. Reblogged this on Create Great Schools and commented:
    Wow what a read! Some issues here in American education! Thanks Larry be interested to hear if you keep an eye on Australian education developments and have any thoughts on our system progress.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Mark, for re-blogging the post on inequalities. I do follow some educational developments in Australia but I do not know enough to make an informed judgment.

  4. Pam

    In the world of public schools low income schools get bundles of state and federal funding while folks in the suburbs can’t afford to repair their schools! Check it out!!

  5. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    A sobering blog post by Larry Cuban that makes you look different at the world in and outside education.

  6. toysmith

    This link points to a photo I snapped inside an ER recently. The English and Spanish signs say two entirely different things. http://i.imgur.com/ALfcsJ1.jpg

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