Commentary: Income inequality and opportunity deficits

The Charlotte ObserverFebruary 15, 2012 

Concern about income inequality and the huge and growing wealth gap in this country has found new energy in our political discourse of late.

President Barack Obama took note of it in his State of the Union address last month. Republican hopefuls for their party's nomination to take on Obama in the November elections have been dragged into talking about it, too.

This is a welcome discussion. It is linked to the heart of the current malaise in this country - that the opportunity to succeed in the U.S. is now severely constricted - and it batters an ideal that Americans hold dear - that with hard work anybody can get ahead.

Far too many Americans see the opportunity door closed. In its stead, they see wealth concentrated among a few people who are arduously devising schemes and courting lawmakers to ensure it stays that way. They also see policymakers seemingly content with the widening economic gap and continuing to foster policies that leave the middle-class and the poor languishing.

Such feelings are recipes for unrest and violence, as other parts of the world have seen. Last month, leaders at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland tagged the wealth gap the world's major concern, one that can derail economic growth. The International Monetary Fund said the same last year.

The opportunity deficit can be seen most keenly among blacks who have been hit hardest during the current recession, with a jobless rate that's nearly double the white rate.

An Urban Institute report released last week detailed how racial and ethnic disparities play out across the U.S. The institute ranked the top 100 metro areas on opportunity gaps and found that small- to medium-sized metros in the south and west did the best in being more equitable in terms of wages, home ownership, education and other factors. Big metros in the midwest and northeast did the worst.

The Charlotte-Rock Hill-Gastonia area ranked 38th and got a B grade for equity. The Raleigh-Cary area ranked 15th, and got an A. The Greensboro-High Point area, the only other N.C. area ranked, came in 46th - graded C. In a new book, an author who was a Nieman fellow with me at Harvard 13 years ago talks about the opportunity deficit in a different way.

Susan Reed writes in "The Diversity Index: The Alarming Truth About Diversity in Corporate America" that the lack of advancement opportunities for African Americans in businesses is troubling. More than one third of Fortune 100 companies have had no minority executive officers in the past 14 years, she says. In 2009, 80 percent of the Fortune 100 employed no African, Hispanic, Asian or Native American women as executive officers, she notes.

One reason, Reed writes, is that many companies are hiring people born outside the United States for executive jobs. "It's easier to get a top job if you are an Asian or Latino who was born outside the U.S. than if you are Asian or Latino and born inside the U.S.," she notes. "There are ten times the number of foreign-born executive officers in the Fortune 100 than there should be, given their college educated cohort in the U.S. ... Even white men are under tremendous pressure. Nine percent of the white male executive officers in the Fortune 100 in 2009 were born outside the U.S."

Globalization has widened the competition pool for good jobs throughout companies, not just at the executive level. There's nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong when Americans feel they'll never be able to compete effectively for those jobs. If they can't, the economy will continue to struggle and the wealth gap will get wider - a situation that threatens U.S. stability.

Reed says U.S. companies must help change that. They must reach out to communities, schools and students with information about the skills and qualifications needed for jobs of the future - directly cultivating U.S. talent for those jobs. She also says companies should get directly involved with schools to improve the K-12 curricula to match the needs of the workplace. She says, "businesses can help create sustainable communities."

Political leaders are needed on that score as well. The widening wealth gap and the opportunity deficit are ticking bombs. It's time to tackle them aggressively. If we don't, we could all find ourselves picking through the debris of the fallout.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Fannie Flono is an associate editor at the Charlotte Observer. Reach her at fflono@charlotteobserver.com.

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