Developing Trends - Income Inequality

Income inequality has been on my mind from the start of the trend collection, but it seemed like such a tough topic to approach. Is it really a trend or has it always been with us? Can we really track how it’s developing? Is it possible to document all of the ways that it matters to libraries? And so, overwhelmed by the complexity of the issue, I pushed other trends first.
 
But then, I got called out. At the REFORMA National Conference in April, I was asked to share some of the Center's trends with panelists for a closing panel discussion, “Creating Our Future: Expanding Our Conversation.” One of the panelists came out and said it, “The thing that’s missing and what makes this report incomplete is the failure to include income inequality as a serious issue for our future.” And that made it perfectly clear. Income inequality is tough to talk about – its origins, its effects on users, its effect on our libraries and ourselves – but it needs to be included in the conversation.
 
And it's an important part of our conversation. Libraries and librarians firmly believe in our roles as the great equalizer in our communities and as the people's university for all users. For many of us, it is central to our work, core to our mission, and a very real way that we fight income inequality, now and in the future.
 
Some of the facts and figures around income inequality:
  • In 2010, the richest 1% of the population had 34% of the accumulated wealth (the very top 0.1% had some 15%) [1]
  • Households headed by someone with at least a bachelor’s degree received nearly a majority (49.7%) of aggregate U.S. household income – and with one in three homes now college educated, half of the aggregate U.S. income goes to one third of the households [2]
  • Three-quarters of the United States’ high-poverty urban neighborhoods in the 1970s are still poor today and three times as many urban neighborhoods have poverty rates exceeding 30% percent as was true in 1970 [3]
Income inequality is also front and center in many conversation about technology, probably best and most recently exemplified by the MIT Technology Review’s November/December 2014 cover story, “Technology and Inequality." Our technology-driven economy has spurred a technology-driven job market, with higher salary opportunities for those within or associated with the technology sector. Those working outside of the tech economy face not only the challenge of lower wages versus their tech colleagues, but also the very real threat of technology advancing in ways that displace or eliminate whole categories of jobs – clerks, secretaries, travel agents, tax preparers, legal professionals. Our tech-driven culture has also created an “economics of superstars” where a single product or brand can dominate a market, minimizing the opportunity for competition and maximizing the earning potential of the dominant product, its leaders, and the investors associated with it.  
 
Income inequality was also part of the conversation at the Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge Winners Convening which I attended in June and where I had the chance to hear Joe Cortright from City Observatory talk about some of the research they were conducting around income opportunity. City Observatory’s Lost in Place report examines the persistence and spread of concentrated poverty, neighborhoods where 30% or more of the population live below the poverty line and where quality of life is worse, crime is higher, public services are weaker, and economic opportunity more distant. [4] The income inequality for people living in these areas is particularly concerning because it is even more likely to be inter-generational, where the children of these neighborhoods have “permanently impaired economic prospects.” Cortright also shared insights from City Observatory’s latest report, Less in Common. There the focus shifts to the importance of social interaction and the mixing of people (from different backgrounds, ages, incomes, and interests) for the development of communities. Less in Common documents how people spend less time in social settings and interact less frequently with people from different backgrounds. This mixing is critically important for both the social and economic progress of communities, because where people come together, new ideas develop, and those ideas drive progress. Part of the data illustrating how our communities have grown apart relates back to income inequality – high-income and low-income Americans are more geographically isolated within metropolitan areas, with the proportion of families living either in predominantly poor or predominantly affluent neighborhoods doubling from 15 percent to 33 percent between 1970 and 2009. [5] Less in Common talks about libraries,  community spaces, and the civic commons as critical players in bringing people physically together to build common interests and address shared issues. While lost in Lost in Place doesn't name these assets directly, its easy to see how the absence of these spaces or the investment in these spaces contribute to the expansion or reduction of concentrated poverty. 
 
Cortright's presentation and City Observatory's reports have helped me to continue to develop my thinking about income inequality. Many of our libraries – whether on campuses, in schools, or in communities – bring together people from different backgrounds into a shared space. Our next challenge may be to activate our spaces so that people interact with each other as much as they interact with the things in the library or the library staff. In addition to being the great equalizer or the people’s university, our next great role in fighting income inequality might be to serve as the intentional connector between people on both sides of the economic spectrum.
 
Notes:
 
[1] “Technology and Inequality.” David Rotman. MIT Technology Review. October 21, 2014. Available from http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/531726/technology-and-ineq...
[2] “The Growing Economic Clout of the College Educated.” Richard Fry. Pew Research Center Fact Tank. September 24, 2013. Available from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/24/the-growing-economic-clo... 
[3] “Lost in Place.” Joe Cortright. City Reports. September 12, 2014. Available from http://cityobservatory.org/lost-in-place/
[4] “Lost in Place.” Joe Cortright. City Reports. September 12, 2014. Available from http://cityobservatory.org/lost-in-place/
[5] “Less in Common.” Joe Cortright. City Reports. September 6, 2015. Available from http://cityobservatory.org/less-in-common/