Is income inequality in Boston morally wrong?
By Robert Bradley | January 19, 2016, 13:34 EDT
Last week, readers of the Boston Globe were treated to yet another article lamenting the fact that Boston, according to an analysis of 2014 Census data by the Brookings Institution, is the U.S. city with the greatest income disparity between the top 5 percent of income earners and the bottom quintile. According to the analysis, the top 5 percent earners in Boston earned $266,000, which was almost 18 times that of the bottom 20 percent.
The question must be asked again, as in an earlier column on this topic: Is income inequality morally wrong? As long as the bottom 20 percent have sufficient means on which to live, why should there be such handwringing over the success of the 5 percent?
There are two main reasons for the concentration of wealth in Boston and in the Commonwealth.
The first is that Boston was founded almost 400 years ago, and during that time, through hard work, perseverance, husbandry, and investment, considerable wealth has been accumulated here over the centuries. Is that something to be ashamed of?
Secondly, Boston’s world-renowned educational and medical institutions have attracted many to Boston, and not a few have remained here after their matriculation to start businesses and practice their professions. Successful in their fields of high-tech, health care and biotechnology, as well as those in venture capital, private equity and money management, they have created many high paying jobs and much wealth. This is something in which citizens of the Commonwealth should take pride.
If we go beyond business, finance, and medicine, there are many other fields where people are bringing home high salaries. Should we be upset at Tom Brady’s or David Ortiz’s eye-popping level of income? Gisele Bunchen’s? Should we be envious of the riches of Boston-bred film actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck?
Arthur Brooks in his excellent book, “The Conservative Heart,” writes about the key four factors that contribute to one’s happiness in life: faith, family, community and earned success. As a community, it is vital to recognize and honor the importance of earned success. We should not shake our heads over the 5 percent who have succeeded in their chosen field; we need to lift them up as role models and encourage others to emulate them.
In my earlier column on this topic, I wrote about America’s remarkably welcoming policy of immigration. This contributes to income inequality in a major way here in the Commonwealth. There are approximately 6.6 million residents in Massachusetts. Almost 1 million of us are foreign born, the great majority of whom arrived with little education, modest earnings power and few financial assets. With more than 15 percent of residents in the Commonwealth being foreign born, it is little wonder that there is a high income disparity?
The income level of female-headed households in Massachusetts is 75 percent lower than married couple households. Marriage is the fault line between the middle class and poverty in America, as Charles Murray wrote in his brilliant book “Coming Apart.”
Another major factor that causes the great disparity of income in Massachusetts is the level of education. By now, almost everyone who studies income inequality knows that one need only do three things in America to escape poverty: (1) finish high school (2) get a job, and (3) get (and stay) married.
In Massachusetts, finishing high school is especially important, as the economy here requires educational achievement to get a good job. Those who drop out of high school have little chance for economic success. A recent publication from Massachusetts Family Institute provided data that showed that students from fatherlessness families have twice the risk of being high- school dropouts as students from married couple households. And the percentage of fatherless families in Massachusetts major cities runs from 45 percent to 65 percent.
It is clear that there are many reasons for the concentration of wealth in the Commonwealth – some having to do with levels of immigration, some having to do with lifestyle choices made by those in the lowest quintile of income earners, and others having to do with the earned success of many in our community.
Once again, it is important to reiterate that differences of income are not, in and of themselves, immoral. It would be wrong not to have a strong safety net for those who are struggling to make ends meet. And wrong, too, not to provide them the means and opportunities to move up the income ladder and reap the rewards of their hard work and perseverance.
But, as a society, should not lament the success of high achievers; we want others to emulate this success. We do not seek to pull successful people down. We do not want to encourage envious behavior. We do not want our politicians to harp on the theme of jealousy. Let us celebrate the high achievers in Boston and work to lift up those who need our help.
Robert Bradley is an investment advisor and entrepreneur. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his investment management firm. This is the second post in a series on income inequality. Read the first post here.