Income, wealth and educational disparities among Americans have grown over the past forty years, with people of color falling disproportionately behind over that period. This reality, together with the country’s imminent transformation into a majority non-white nation, creates an economic imperative and urgency for change. Yet today, so many of our “solutions” just don’t seem matched to the true nature and scale of the problems; our aspirations are often too small. At Living Cities, we are deeply unsatisfied with the incremental pace of social change. We believe that the enormity of the challenge requires that we help define and deploy the critical combination and alignment of actors, approaches and resources that are needed to dramatically improve the economic well-being of low-income people – what we call a “New Urban Practice.”
Despite data and events that can often be depressing, I start 2016 incredibly optimistic that we are on the verge of something special. I believe that in a decade, we will look back at 2016 and see that it was the year where we began seeing rapid, sometimes exponential, narrowing of disparities between rich and poor, white and non-white Americans. Why? Because of the convergence of four unique accelerants: (1) public will for a more equitable America; (2) cities as home to a majority of the population and their effectiveness as laboratories for addressing complex social and economic challenges; (3) the ubiquity and power of technology; and (4) the unprecedented availability of impact investment capital.
These accelerants are not new, per se, but their cumulative impact on the pace of social change is and will continue to be felt over the next decade. To launch #BensTake in 2016, I’m going to address each of these accelerants starting with this blog, and in my next three blogs. In this post, I explore the current surge of public will to address inequality.
The Accelerant of Public Will
You can’t make progress if people are apathetic or unmotivated.. While something might be the right thing to do, without broad public will, it’s hard to find the way. A broad and vocal public will creates the environment that enables large scale change. It’s not sufficient, but it sure is necessary. What’s unique about 2016, unlike any other time in my life, is a growing intolerance for our nation’s inequality of income and access to opportunity – and a willingness to act.
A Growing Intolerance
In my 25 years of working for social change, I have never seen a national and sustained discussion about the fact that incomes have been stagnant for the last forty years and the need to raise the minimum wage. Nor have I seen mayoral candidates from cities as diverse as Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and New York, who ran on an equity agenda and won. Similarly, it’s almost inconceivable that an economics book, Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-first Century,” could be the subject of dinner conversations everywhere as well as among columnists and pundits on both the left and right.
Moreover, the conversation is not just driven by anecdotal stories heard on the street. Research shows that Americans acknowledge both income and racial inequalities, and believe that action must be taken to address these issues. In fact, 66% of Americans say the distribution of money and wealth in the U.S. should be more even and 71% favor an increase in the federal minimum wage, according to a recent New York Times poll. There’s also an increasing public acknowledgement of inequalities among racial lines and the need to do more to address those disparities. According to an August 2015 Pew Research Study, in the last year there has been a “substantial rise in the share of Americans — across racial and ethnic groups — who say the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.” In addition, the poll found that 50% Americans view racism as “a big problem in society” as opposed to only 33% in 2009.
A Growing Set of Actions
Minimum Wage and “The Fight for $15”: A 2012 demonstration of fast-food workers demanding higher pay galvanized a national movement to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour. Often referred to as the “Fight for 15,” the movement has since advanced with surprising momentum and force of will. “What the Fight for 15 has done is give faces, names and personal stories that many, perhaps most, working Americans can identify with,“ Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley labor expert, told the L.A. Times. Since 2013, 19 jurisdictions have passed legislation to increase their minimum wage – an unprecedented number. Effective on January 1st, 14 states have increased their minimum wage. In the next year, as many as five additional states and nine cities will consider proposals.
The Black Lives Matter Movement: The #BlackLivesMatter Movement sprung on the scene in 2013, when three community activists used the hashtag as a bold response and call to action after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Reactions were broad and sweeping, and uptake of the #BlackLivesMatter message was positive and far reaching. The movement took on a life of its own, and after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, #BlackLivesMatter took root as the rallying cry for citizens, black and white, who would no longer tolerate prejudice, discrimination and racial inequity. In 2015, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum and grew into a political force. Across the country, it wielded increased influence – meeting with national politicians, raising awareness about police violence, leading protests on college campuses, and more.
Public Will greases the wheels; creating and sustaining momentum. It gives those who want to act the agency and cover to do so. Public will helps move from the question of “if” change should happen to “what, how and how fast” it can happen. We not only have that environment today but we also have some extraordinary and rapid results to show for it.
Photo Credit: Speeding Traffic Trail, by Matt on Flickr. CC By 2.0.