Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

An Unconventional Look at Equity | November 8, 2017

Truth is not beauty, but hard work.  – The Economist

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interact with Kate Knuth, Minneapolis’ Chief Resilience Officer. She identified “equity” as one of the things she’s targeting.  In this post, I’m going to explore a different way of looking at “equity” that may open the door to new policy options for greater community resilience.

Unfortunately “equity” is almost as multi-faceted – and polysemous – as “resilience.”  “Equity” in general is concerned with the distribution of resources and opportunities across a community. As I’ve discussed previously, we know that the distribution of financial resources – wealth – has changed dramatically since Y2K.  The rich are richer. The middle class and the poor have barely held their own on average and many have fallen behind.*

Recovery from a disaster requires both resources – money, skilled people – and the ability to use those resources to effect recovery – competence.  This means that the poor – black and white – are at a special disadvantage.  In general, their schools under-perform those of the more affluent, and in rural areas do not provide the range of educational experiences offered by the better urban schools. In other words, the poor have little money and fewer opportunities to build competence than the more affluent.

As both Charles Murray and the Brookings Institution have shown, the changing distribution of wealth has also led to a separation of rich and poor in terms of where each lives.  Thus, those who potentially could (and want to) help the poor are less likely to recognize their needs prior to a disaster because they are never talking to the poor, i.e., resources won’t flow where messages don’t go.  Thus, the changing distribution of wealth means that the least resilient among us have become even less so.

From where I sit (not too comfortably after a bad fall while on vacation) labeling this problem as “inequity” locks us in to a mindset that actually may limit our solution space. Inequity as it is usually used combines a measurable component – the distribution of resources – and a values-laden component, something like fairness.  By combining the two, we create something of a quagmire for making policy. Two people look at the exact same distribution of resources and she sees unfairness while he sees nothing more than the natural order of things.  So she looks for villains (President Trump, Republicans, Big Business) while he hides behind Sports Illustrated (This, of course, never happens in my house).

A more promising approach might be to focus on the various aspects of the problem – the measurables. The more each member of the community can stand on their own the stronger and more resilient the community will be.  We should focus on future credit for fixing the problem rather than trying to find the villain in our past. Playing the Blame Game may well fixate us on trying to reverse the supposed sins of the “villains” rather than on how best to move forward.

So let me give you an example of an unconventional approach to solving the problem of inequity.  Let’s bring back universal service – yes, I’m serious, bring back the Draft.  Everyone between 18 and 20 would be required to do two years of national service – no exemptions except for hardened criminals.  The unskilled would be trained in a craft – nursing, mechanics, assisting teachers, languages, i.e., doing something useful in our communities.  I’d suggest the Army coordinate the program – in my experience it is the most effective training organization in the country – if they can teach me Vietnamese…

Why might this work – I can think of several reasons.

  • Everyone – rich and poor – would be thrown together.  They might separate after their two years but they would have had significant interactions.  The richer would learn something about the problems of the poor; the poorer would learn to better communicate with the rich.  And, as I know from my own experience, some of the relationships formed would continue after separation.  These informal networks could play a crucial role in getting people their first paying job.
  • The substandard education of the poor would be at least partially remedied by the training they’d receive.  The poor would have opportunities and experiences that they could not receive in any other way.  And many would gain new confidence through their own accomplishments and a sense of their own competence.
  • The poor would also have the chance to build up a nest egg.  Certainly not much, but more than if they had no marketable skills.
  • Less tangibly but just as important, we would strengthen our community bonds by forging a new national narrative (I’ll write about this fairly soon.).

I don’t claim that this is a good idea, but it is the kind of “outside the box” idea that we need to consider.  Our communities are being pulled apart by partisan stresses.  The lower middle class is locked into a vicious cycle of having to work harder and harder just to stay where they are.  The poor are bing doomed to the hopelessness of government dependence.  The more affluent see their nominal wealth growing on paper but live in fear that the bubble will – as it will eventually – burst.  The young are being locked out of jobs that the old must hold on to just to make ends meet.  And savers (especially retirees) find their savings being eroded by government reliance on outmoded economic models.  “Isolation” and “quiet desperation” are the sad watchwords of our connected world.

But trajectory is not fate.  If we are willing to do the hard work to go beyond “truthiness” to the truth; if we are willing to let reality dictate our prejudices rather than politicians and the media; if we truly believe that now is the time that each of us must work to strengthen our communities, then we’ll look hard at what seem to be unconventional ideas so that our communities can become more resilient.

*However, in the spirit of truth being hard work, we also need to recognize that the apparent disparity is largely on paper.  To quote  Grant Williams, “All the increased wealth is directly attributable to soaring asset prices and not rising income and that in turn is directly directly attributable to the policies followed by central banks.”

The Federal Reserve’s near zero interest rates mean that stock prices are at all-time highs while the values of the companies haven’t really changed.  As we saw in 2007-9, all those dollars on paper disappear when reality steps in – just ask lots of high-finance folks  who ended up delivering pizzas after the crash.  Similarly, keep an eye on Elon Musk and Tesla – huge and growing debt with little debt service – for now.   But with interest rates creeping up…