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"Putting Equality Back on the American Agenda,"

by S. M. Miller & Charles Collins fivegood@aol.comJuly/August 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

The Joint Project on Equality and its sister organization, Share The Wealth, respond to two important developments in the United States. One is the increasing concentration of in-come and wealth and of political power. The other is the ongoing undermining of the safety net. Today's American scene is one of extraordinary wealth and power for a few and poverty, inadequate incomes, growing insecurity and political ineffectiveness for the overwhelming majority. Instead of looking up at the small group who wield economic and political power, American publics are led to look down at the poor, people of color, women and immigrants as the source of the American Unease.

One reason for this sadly distorted interpretation of American reality is that an important word has been missing from political discourse in recent times: Equality. Prominent in this nation's early governing documents and commentaries, it has grown dusty from lack of use, rusty in concept and transformed in outlook.

A single stark datum will illustrate how the U.S. leads in anew, profoundly disturbing way: The wealthiest 1% of the population now has more wealth than the bottom 90%.

Historic changes have been occurring ideologically as well as economically in the United States. It is now contended that great inequalities are a positive good, the only fuel for economic incentives. This declaration is increasingly heard despite the fact that in American economic history lower levels of in-equality frequently accompanied great economic advance. Little concern is demonstrated for the social costs in daily life and restrictions on political democracy that a more divided society produces.

Efforts to limit the destruction of the safety net are weak because supporters lack a unifying and compelling theme. They defend existing programs, despite their past criticism of them. They do not offer an attractive vision of the United States which can compete with the increasingly dominant view that morality rests with those who call for less economic support and more social regulation.

The theme of equality or fairness or true equality of opportunity is one road to countering the increasing concentration of assets and power and the rending of the safety net. Equality questions could be a way of framing the missing reply to the ideology of less government and lessened concern for the quality of life of ordinary Americans.

David Hunter, former head of the Stern Fund and a well-known innovator in philanthropy, recently initiated a meeting of activists, researchers and foundation officials to discuss the neglect of equality concerns. This meeting endorsed the idea of an exploratory project with a steering group that would be the first phase of a long-term effort to bring equality and fairness into a prominent place in American thinking and action.

In this first phase of exploration, we will design the lines of a continuing, perhaps 10-year endeavor to highlight inequalities and promote action to remedy them. The Joint Project on Equality, housed at the Commonwealth Institute, is the form of the first phase. The steering committee includes Harriet Barlow, Jim Browne, Charles Coffins, Charles Halpern, Richard Healey, Caren Grown, David Hunter, S.M. Miller, Frances Fox Piven, Mark Ritchie and Juliet Schor.

The Joint Project's general orientation is to work with existing organizations, particularly grass roots/community groups and identity and environmental organizations. It recently formed a sister organization relationship with Share the Wealth (STW), started last year by young activists in the Boston Area.
The working assumptions that we start with are:
- The great differences in levels of living within the United States impede progress toward political democracy, healthy economic growth and social amity.
- The dangerous fracturing of Americans, with a tiny percentage of the population holding or controlling the bulk of the wealth and income, is not a condition of nature; it has been changed in the past and can be changed if the will to do so emerges.

We start with the assumption that the best way of learning what to do is by engaging in action and learning from that doing what might or might not be effective on a bigger scale.

Four lines of exploratory activities are currently pursued or will soon be undertaken:
I.Community Outreach. STW has been working with community and other activist groups as well as advocacy organizations to see how their activities can connect to issues of equality. Much of what these organizations do involves questions of equality, but they do not usually interpret their situations in that way, nor do they develop approaches that advance the broader implications of their work.

STW has developed a lively popular education program called "Focus on Equity," which we have conducted for over 70 organizations, including union locals, religious social action groups and others. We have developed a training manual and trained more than 50 individuals to give this pro-gram, in the expectation that manymore groups will be reached in the next months. We hope to produce lively interactive videos so that we can reach a much greater number of grassroots organizations, and we will soon initiate technical assistance programs to help clarify the connections between the immediate actions of an organization and longer-term equality goals. Reac-tions to the training program have been very positive.

We plan to widen and deepen relationships with religious, feminist, environmental-sustainability groups and, particularly, organizations of people of color.

The grass-roots organizations we are working with will be invited to join a council that will play an increasingly important role in defining and directing the equality agenda. The objectives are to broaden "ownership" of the issue and to improve the work of the Joint Project and Share The Wealth by widening the range of advice and consultation.

2. Research and Popular Education. We are developing, collecting and using research on inequalities. We strive to present the material in easily usable form and have had considerable success with community groups in presenting data in lively, memorable ways.

We are publishing analyses in a number of periodicals. STW's new quarterly periodical, Too Much, will be a useful vehicle.

We will probably establish a council of researchers studying inequalities. Meanwhile, we scan the literature for relevant data. In particular, we will encourage research that investigates the distorting effects on the economy of the concentrations of income and wealth. One avenue to study is the effect of increased short-term speculation on long-term growth and employment. Another important area concerns the negative consequences of inequalities, such as the link between illness and mortality and income distribution. A third topic would examine the barriers to true equality of opportunity.

Especially needed are well-based economic analyses that demonstrate how to achieve more good jobs and more equality while safeguarding the environment. We intend to help stim-ulate this understanding of sustaina-bility, which is important for gaining wide support.

3.Message and Media. The great need is to have a compelling message that reasserts basic American values of fairness and equality. We have begun analyses of public opinion data and plan focus groups, but have already come to the tentative conclusion that real equality of opportunity is a much more attractive rallying cry than equality of conditions. Also important is reporting the negative consequences of present-day inequalities for the economy and social life, not just the data on concentrations of economic and political power.

We plan to develop systematic connections to media people, so that they will feature equality and inequality topics. One way of getting attention to our agenda is through op-eds, a particularly important vehicle for influencing unorganized publics disturbed and uneasy about the economic situation but who lack a cohesive way of understanding what is going on We hope to develop a workshop on the writing of op-eds and turn out a stream of op-eds and popular writing on equality issues.

4.Mobilization and Action. Our intention is to aid community and advocacy organizations to undertake common actions about issues of inequality. One action we will focus on in the next months is corporate subsidies. Share The Wealth is working with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is introducing a bill on corporate welfare. STW will work with local groups to connect to this issue, which affects a number of questions of economic policy. The intention is to keep the corporate subsidy issues alive beyond this legislative season.

What distinguishes our efforts are the variety of lines of thinking and action, the connections to ongoing or-ganizations and unorganized publics, and the intention of emerging with a long-term, sustained presence on the issues of equality. We aim to bring fresh life to many facets of the equality complex and to demonstrate how equality and fairness can be core ingredients of a new or at least renewed progressive ideology and value approach.

We are eager to work with many groups and individuals. Please contact us.

S. M. Miller is member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.

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