I learned last week that income inequality, a term frequently used in the Presidential primaries as a provocative soundbite, has meaning and substance beyond the current political slugfest.
To provide some context, Geoff Oxnam and I, both graduates of Leadership Maryland–a statewide program to expose leaders in the for-profit, non-profit and government worlds to the major issues facing our state–organized a forum last week at Easton Utilities to talk about economic disparity. Leading the lively discussion were two Salisbury University educators, Dr. Dustin Chambers and Dr. Memo Diriker.
Here’s what I learned:(not necessarily in the order of importance):
* Simple solutions are not the best ones. Our economy is complex.
* Income inequality (economic disparity) is the nature of our economy.
* What’s particularly important is opportunity, unblocked by government/corporate policies and unhindered by corruption and cronyism, political instability and redistributive tax policies.
* Part of economic opportunity and growth is the overriding need to increase skills through education and training. I will discuss this more when I have completed this list.
* New technology can be disruptive to parts of our economy. It’s also beneficial. While a few entrepreneurs and their associates can become terrifically wealthy, their products, such as IPads and IPhones, can change consumers’ lifestyles for the better. Ancillary industries can result. Employment can grow. More risk-taking entrepreneurs are good for the economy.
* Depending on the metric used by economists, from 1976 to 2006, wages declined 4%, increased 10% according to another measuring tool, or shot up 26% if compensation benefits were considered.
* In terms of economic mobility, from 1996 to 2005, 50 percent of people moved to different income brackets; of the top 1%, only 25% who were there in 1996 stayed there by 2005.
* To boost our economy, both political parties need to agree on greater investment in infrastructure and research and development.
For the sake of readers, I will list no more. Instead, taking my cue from Chambers and Diriker, I will focus on education. Remembering that a simple solution typically is flawed, I do believe, however, that educational opportunity for all economic strata provides a direct route to individual growth and more universal economic improvement.
For the sake of this column, I’m including “training” in education, though the purists in the academic arena argue that training is separate and distinct. Perhaps they are right, in a pure, sometimes territorial way. While I realize that Chesapeake College offers specific, critically necessary training in the allied medical professions, I also believe that the acquisition of a specific skill involves learning, though it is more hands-on than requiring an essay about Shakespeare or Mozart.
Allow me to remain ever so briefly on my soapbox. As discussed at our Leadership Maryland forum, vocational training may be just the right fit for young people ill-suited for a conventional four-year college education. And vocational training, whether it’s becoming a tractor trailer driver or an automotive mechanic, should be honored, not stigmatized.
While I seriously question a free education subsidized by government, as some have suggested, I came away from the forum with the firm thought that accessibility to higher education, whether on a community college or four-year level, needs fixing. After making this declarative statement, I am incapable of saying more. Possible solutions evade me.
Are many young college graduates saddled with enormous loan obligations that burden them for years? Yes, that’s the case. Should these loans be forgiven, since these financial obligations impede qualifying for a mortgage? I just can’t fathom the cost of such an idea.
Two other adjuncts to economic growth and opportunity arose during our discussion, and they were mentoring and apprenticeship. The former is vital for any person dealing with the demands of a first job, or even a second or third one. The latter is a concept once very common and useful in our country. I think it should be revived.
A free-ranging discussion led by two capable and practical educators is difficult to summarize. Income inequality is more complex than a political cudgel, though both parties have expressed concern. As always, solutions are complex but worth pursuing.
Education is a good place to start.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.