Following a chaotic Presidential election that highlighted the bitter divisions in American society, the following weeks of election misinformation, and the culmination of these events with the storming of our nation’s Capitol on January 6th, how does President Biden even begin to unite the nation as he has promised he would do?
It is a complicated question to answer, and one with no silver bullet. Some political scientists and media pundits argue that Biden needs to reach across the aisle and prioritize bipartisan legislation. Others say that now is time to remove the filibuster – an archaic senate stratagem that allows the minority to block majority legislation.
These are all valid suggestions, but in my opinion, a good start might be to begin to address the legitimate economic grievances of middle-Americans. Their plight is nothing new. They have had their quality of life deteriorate over a 40-plus year period as manufacturing jobs increasingly moved overseas or were automated. At the same time, the job opportunities that came from new high technology industries concentrated on the East and West Coasts, spurring economic resentment and the rise of modern ‘elitist’ tropes.
Throughout the 1970s, manufacturing jobs hovered around 18 million and peaked at 19.5 million in 1979. By 2010, those jobs had declined to 11.5 million and currently stand at roughly 12.3 million as of December 31, 2020.
If it feels as though the U.S. is divided into two separate and distinct realities it is because, economically and socially, it is. According to Statista, the U.S. with the richest real GDP per capita more than double that of the poorest. As recently as 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that median household income in the poorest states was half of what it was in the richest states, from $45,792 in Mississippi and to over $80,000 in California, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, DC. Poverty is also highest in the South and lower-Midwest, with 15-18% or more of the population in some states living below the poverty level.
And it has been well documented that poverty leads to a slew of other concerns. According to CDC data compiled in 2018-2019, opioid addiction is also most acute in the Midwest and South, where opioid-involved deaths range from 20 to 30 per 100,000 people, to less than 6 deaths per 100,000 in California and Texas. Dependency on addictive drugs is often a consequence of endemic socio-economic problems. Although a few of the wealthiest states are not immune from the problem, particularly in the northeastern U.S.
The Rust Belt is synonymous with regions that have faced industrial decline and abandoned factories. My hometown of Utica, New York is a case in point. Utica’s population declined over 40% from 1960 to 1980, primarily due to the loss of textile and electronics industries.
Detroit is an even more dramatic example of a decline in the Rust Belt. According to the 2020 Census, their population has gone from 1.85 million in 1950 to just 670 thousand – largely due to the loss of automobile manufacturing jobs driven by automation and competition from international brands.
Why is all this important? The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) succinctly described how excess income and wealth inequality affects our lives. Income and social inequality are directly linked with reduced trust in government and the business sector. Large wealth gaps can be associated with social conflicts.
Most notably, wealth inequality also makes it hard for societies to come to a political consensus, resulting in sudden policy shifts with governments serving the interests of their own supporters at the expense of the greater good. Does this sound familiar?
We have certainly seen this play out over the past four years, whiplashing between dramatically different environmental, immigration, health care, and taxation policies. This has profound impacts on the ability of the business sector to develop and implement cohesive business strategies and corporate social responsibility initiatives.
It also contributes to the average American’s frustration with the government establishment in Washington, which gave rise to populist movements on both sides of the aisle in figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. As a result of these violent political pendulum swings, Americans’ Congressional job approval rating has hovered between 9% and 40% for the past twelve years!
The government, in collaboration with the business sector, has an unprecedented opportunity of addressing the legitimate grievances of tens-of-millions of Americans, bringing greater income and social equality to those sections of the county that have been most impacted by industrial decline.
One means of tackling this economic inequality is through the Biden administration’s plan for climate change and environmental justice. Biden’s plan is just as much of an economic plan as it is an environmental one. The federal government plans to invest $1.7 trillion in clean technology development and production over the next ten years. All of this equates to new, sustainable jobs in a growing sector of our economy.
Additionally, Biden’s infrastructure “Build Back Better” plan proposes an additional $2 trillion investment in infrastructure improvements and upgrades. The proposed investments in America’s future – matched with trillions of dollars of private sector investment – will create millions of good new jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure and reinventing industries, including the automotive industry. All in all, it will provide a new foundation for sustainable growth and improving the quality of life for all Americans.
Furthermore, the Biden Administration also proposes to make community colleges tuition-free, affording millions of lower-income Americans the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills to fill these new jobs.
Major portions of proposed investments in infrastructure, climate, and environmental justice must be strategically targeted toward those geographical areas and communities that have suffered most from successive recessions, out-sourcing, and international competition, and benefitted little from the technology booms and economic recoveries over the past 40-plus years.
The private sector working in collaboration with the government to address economic and social inequality is perhaps the most efficient way of bridging our divides and uniting our country. After all, how can people be angry if they are prospering?
Rich Zacaroli had a long and distinguished career in the private sector, and has served for over 30 years on numerous boards of non-governmental organizations in the education, cultural exchange, community development, and banking sectors. He is chair of the board of directors of Greenheart International. He is a member of Rotary International, a Paul Harris Fellow, past-president of the Rotary Club of South Sacramento, Rotary District 5180 Global Grant Scholarship Chair, and serves on the Pastoral Council for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento.