The Growing Divide Calls for Advocacy
By Ron Elsdon
Growing inequality in income, wealth and opportunity raise fundamental questions for us as career counselors about our advocacy role for those who are disadvantaged, and how we might best be of service to all in our community. This article examines some disturbing inequality trends and offers suggestions for career counselors. "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." These words from Franklin Delano Roosevelt remind us of our advocacy role in today's rising economic tide, which as one person puts it, lifts only yachts.
Let's start by understanding why the world's great ethical systems address the needs of those who are disadvantaged. Studies within the U.S. and across nations show happiness rising rapidly as people are lifted out of poverty and then quickly leveling off at a modest income level. The African Maasai, Forbes magazine's richest Americans and the Pennsylvania Amish share an equally high level of life satisfaction even though they have vastly different levels of income (Diener, 2004). However those in abject poverty, homeless people in Calcutta, India or Fresno, California share an equally low level of happiness. Our ethical systems seek to distribute resources to all, since then our overall community well-being is greatest. A little more wealth for Bill Gates does little for him; it makes an enormous difference to a poor person.
In our country of 300 million people, the number living below the poverty line recently hit 37 million, that's a nation the size of Canada or Morocco living inside the U.S. (Alter, 2005). Most disturbingly, inequality is growing rapidly. Here are some measures:
- Between 1979 and 2003 household income of the wealthiest 1% increased by 111%, while it barely moved for the poorest 20% (Mishel, 2006), in spite of large productivity gains over this time.
- A common measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, has risen precipitously since the early 1980s (U.S. Census Bureau).
- The wealthiest 5% of our population own almost 60% of the wealth of this country. The poorest 80% held only 18.7% of all wealth in 1983, which decreased to just 15.3% in 2004. The 3.4 percentage point decrease was shifted to the top 20% of wealth holders.
Three Steps for Career Development Professionals
Often such information is a surprise, so an important initial step we can take as career counselors is to educate ourselves and stay current about emerging workplace issues, particularly focusing on those groups in our society that are economically marginalized. Staying informed about workplace issues has long been a core component of career counseling; here we extend this to advocacy for those who are underserved.
In our economy some have benefited excessively in recent years at the expense of others. CEO pay rose to over 400 times average worker pay in 2006, an order of magnitude greater than it was in the early 80s. Someone observed that the average CEO earns more before lunchtime on the first day of work of the year, than a minimum wage worker earns all year. In spite of this, there are a few bright spots. Costco's CEO Jim Sinegal, intentionally limits his compensation. Costco pays much higher wages and provides much better benefits for its employees than rival WalMart's Sam's Club. With people more engaged, committed and productive, Costco's financial performance far outpaces Sam's Club (Business Week, 2004).
A second step we can consider taking is to become well informed about organizations, their values and approaches, and to develop criteria we can use to decide whether to engage with an organization as an employee, contractor, customer or consumer. Such criteria explore whether organizations honor the stewardship of their workforce and community and are based on questions such as:
- Is compensation at senior levels equitable relative to others?
- Does the organization value and provide appropriate employee benefits?
- Does the organization recognize and honor community responsibility?
- Does the organization understand and protect the physical environment?
We can consider extending this approach to assisting clients develop their own criteria so ensuring that they find employment with honorable organizations that match their values.
What can we glean by comparing our situation with other countries? We find that our level of inequality is akin to many third world countries. The nations that enjoy the greatest prosperity also have the lowest levels of income inequality (with the exception of the U.S.) Interestingly, nations with lower levels of income inequality also have higher mobility - it is easier to progress economically in the more egalitarian Scandinavian countries than in the U.S. (Hertz, 2006). Nations with lower levels of income inequality also have lower homicide and robbery rates (Fajnzylber, 2002). This is a great concern as inequality increases.
A third step for us to consider as career counselors is to influence public policy for the benefit of those who need it most and are under-represented. This may mean influencing media, joining legislative campaigns and engaging in creative direct action. Indeed one career counselor, on learning more of these recent trends, was moved to re-engage in political campaigns for those whose platforms recognize the needs of disadvantaged groups in our community.
Advocacy by All
Income and wealth disparities are growing in the U.S. due to changing work conditions (for example the difficulty of organizing into unions), taxation policy that favors the wealthy, gross inequities in corporate compensation, and educational inequities, while mobility is declining. These changes threaten the well being of our society, leading to sustained poverty, reduced circumstances and constrained life choices for many. Finally, as career counselors we are challenged to inform ourselves and others about what is happening, engage in direct action, in our political processes and with the media to influence decisions. Equally important is our advocacy role in supporting as employees, customers and investors those organizations that respect their employees and communities, and withdrawing support from those that don't. It also means encouraging and supporting institutions such as the NCDA to voice concerns in this area. We are called to courage in the words of Joan Chittister "Courage is coming to realize that what does and does not happen in the world does so because of what you and I fail to say - not when silence is right, but when we fear the cost to ourselves of speaking out."
Alter, J. (September 19, 2005). The Other America. Newsweek. Retrieved from MSNBC.com
Anderson, S. et al. (2006). Executive Excess 2006. Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy.
Boushey, H. (2005). Horatio Alger is Dead, Basic Economics Seminar. Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Business Week On-Line. (April 12, 2004). The Costco Way. Author.
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (2004). Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1), 1-31.
Mishel, L., et al. (2006). The State of Working America 2006/2007. Economic Policy Institute.
Fajynzylber, P. et al. (2002). Inequality and Violent Crime. Journal of Law and Economics 45(1), 1-40.
Harris, D. (n.d.). Beating the Odds or Losing the War, A National Portrait of Student Achievement in High Poverty Schools. Economic Policy Institute, cited in Can Separate Be Equal, Richard Kahlenberg, Century Foundation.
Hertz, T. (2006). Understanding Mobility in America. Center for American Progress.
Kahlenberg, R. (2004). America's Untapped Resource Low-Income Students in Higher Education. Century Foundation Press.
Ron Elsdon, Ph.D. (www.elsdon.com) is a founder of Elsdon Organizational Renewal and New Beginnings Career and College Guidance. Ron specializes in the career and workforce development fields, providing individual coaching and career counseling, organizational consulting, public speaking, publishing and lecturing. Ron has more than 25 years of leadership experience at diverse organizations in a broad range of sectors, and has been an adjunct faculty member at several universities. He is also author of Affiliation in the Workplace: Value Creation in the New Organization (Praeger, 2003), a book describing leadership approaches to integrate the needs of the individual with the needs of the organization for the benefit of both. Ron Elsdon holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cambridge, a Master's degree in Career Development from John F. Kennedy University, and a first class honors degree in Chemical Engineering from Leeds University. Ron can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org