Our Kids Aren’t the Only Ones Suffering From Inequality. We’re Failing Our Parents Too!

You wouldn’t know it to read the news these days, but the Baby Boomers are in trouble.

Rarely does a day go by that the Baby Boomers aren’t blamed for something. They’re bankrupting Social Security. They caused the Great Recession. They’re hogging all the money.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you’ve got the wrong culprit. Most Baby Boomers don’t have nearly as much money as you think they do. You’re rounding up the many to prosecute the few. That’s just bad police work.

This is a plea for the parents out there. They raised us and fed us, they taught us and nursed us, they brought us into this world, and for the most part, they tried to make it better for us. And we are failing them.

We are failing our parents.

We have a strange sense of obligation in this country. We talk a lot about what we owe our children but very little about what we owe our parents. The future is sacrosanct; the past quickly forgotten.

And we should talk about our children. Because we’re failing them too.

Pick up a copy of Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids, and you’ll see all the ways we’re failing them:

  • More and more kids are growing up with one parent instead of two. The single parent is less likely to find a job. They have less time to spend with their kids. As a result, their children perform worse in school, exhibit more behavioral problems, and experience more anxiety and depression.
  • More and more kids aren’t eating dinner with their family. They aren’t having conversations with their parents. They don’t know the alphabet when they start school. And they never catch up!
  • More and more kids are living below or near the poverty line, where they “experience severe or chronic stress,” making it harder to concentrate, “cope with adversity, and organize their lives.” They are more likely to be neglected, discouraged, abused, and traumatized. And they have permanent brain damage!
  • More and more families can’t keep up with the rising cost of childcare. They send their kids to low-quality daycare. They have less time available to spend with their kids. And when they do spend time with them, their financial worries make it harder for them to be patient, focus, and nurture.
  • More and more students are falling behind their peers in school. Their parents don’t have the time or knowledge to help them. Their schools don’t have the fundraising capability to make up the difference. Their teachers are demoralized. Their classmates are disruptive, discouraging, and even violent. Extracurricular activities are either unavailable or too expensive to participate in. College is even more expensive. And if they do make it to college, it’s one with lower graduation rates and a future of higher unemployment and lower earnings.
  • More and more kids don’t trust people. They don’t have mentors to teach them about life. They don’t have youth organizations to keep them safe and healthy. They don’t have programs to show them how to apply for college or budget their money. They don’t have contacts to help them find a job. And they think their vote doesn’t matter, so the problem just keeps getting worse!

For Putnam, this is where the story ends. And who can blame him? Kids are an easy sell. No one can blame them for their lot in life.

But what happens when they become adults? We don’t like to talk about that part. Affordable housing, food stamps, incarceration, labor unions, mandated health insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, the minimum wage, paid leave, progressive taxation, public jobs, Social Security, unemployment insurance, welfare — that’s the controversial stuff. Better not to touch those subjects. Kids deserve a helping hand, but adults? We’re not so sure.

The problem is, those adults were kids once upon a time too, and when they were, many of them had it just as bad. And now, after heaping disadvantage upon disadvantage on them for twenty years, they’re expected to compete on the same playing field as everyone else. It’s as if they were running a race, and their peers were given a twenty-year head start — and we criticize them for not catching up!

These adults deserve equalizing policies every bit as much as their kids.

Long-Term Unemployment by AgeThe young and the old aren’t so different after all. It’s the wrong contrast. Even if we wanted to take money from the old and give it to the young, it wouldn’t work because they don’t have it!

The Baby Boomers are trillions of dollars short of the wealth they need to retire without a “drastic lifestyle change.” Over half of them will get most of their income from Social Security, and one in four will have nothing but Social Security. For those who got laid off during the Great Recession, they’re having a much harder time getting rehired than younger generations. And because they were the ones who were holding mortgages when the bubble popped, their homeownership rate has nosedived so badly that Trulia’s chief economist Jed Kolko calls them “the lost generation of homeowners.”

Clearly, inequality affects Americans of every age — and that is why you cannot cure what ails the children without treating the parents, for the ailment is not generational. It is economic, and it perpetuates itself down through the generations.

So, yes, by all means, let’s talk about inequality of opportunity for our kids because that’s where it all starts. But let’s also remember that those kids grow up, and when they do, it doesn’t get easier. The scars of childhood last a lifetime.

We tend to overlook those scars and place blame on those who have fallen behind in the race. But for those of us who have been given a head start and don’t reach back to offer them a hand, the real failure rests with us.

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This op-ed was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Speak Up and Give Back if You Want the Economy to Improve

The holiday season is supposed to be a time of giving. We give presents, money and love. We give to show we care, and we give to share our good fortune. But giving isn’t what it used to be.

Years ago, the richest Americans gave a lot more of their income than they do now. Back then, the economy was healthier, the middle class was wealthier, and the nation was less divided. The American experience was a shared experience. Giving, after all, is sharing.

Today, the income gap is growing. It hasn’t been this high since the Great Crash of 1929. The wider it grows, the less the rich associate with the rest of us, and the less they feel the need or the desire to give back.

Relationship Between Social Class, Narcissism, and EgalitarianismRecent work by the psychologist Paul K. Piff has shown that people become more narcissistic as they get richer. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the poor and the middle class feel “entitled” nowadays, Piff finds that entitlement is higher among the rich.

But Piff has also discovered something that should give us hope. In one experiment, before he tested them for narcissism, he asked them to write down three benefits of treating other people as equals. Suddenly, their narcissistic tendencies disappeared. In the rest of the experiment, they stopped thinking of themselves and started thinking, well, like everyone else.

The economy is stuck in a rut right now. Most Americans’ inflation-adjusted income hasn’t increased since the onset of the Great Recession. But Piff’s research shows us that this trend doesn’t have to be permanent. We have the power to change it.

That’s what I tried to do in my book Letter to the One Percent. In it, I reached out to the richest one percent of American households. I asked them to do what they did in Piff’s experiment: to think of their fellow citizens as equals.

But the real world is not an experiment. Outside the lab, changing hearts and minds takes a little more convincing.

In another recent experiment, marketing professors Saerom Lee, Karen Winterich, and William Ross found that most people drew a sharp distinction between deserving and undeserving recipients of aid. They were far more likely to donate money, for example, if they were told that a person was poor because he could only find a low-wage job than if they were told that the poor person had a drug problem. They didn’t think of these people as equals.

Since publishing my book, I’ve heard people make this distinction often in response to my message to the One Percent. And so, over the past year, I’ve written op-eds showing that the rich aren’t rich because they work harder than the rest of us; that the poor don’t lie and cheat any more than the rest of us (and in fact the rich lie and cheat more); that you can’t simply get rich by choosing to get an education; that people can’t make more money by being poor or unemployed; and that much, if not most, of the difference between the rich and the poor can be explained by childhood experiences over which they had no control.

Some of us have made better decisions than others. Some have been given better opportunities than others. But the belief on which this nation was founded, “that all men [and women] are created equal,” rings as true today as it did in 1776.

No one is arguing for complete equality of income. Not even close. We celebrate the success of the One Percent, and rightly so. All we ask, especially in this time of giving, is for the compassion, the humility, the shared experience that existed only a few decades ago.

Your voice is more powerful than you might realize. The researchers James Andreoni and Justin M. Rao conducted an experiment where they showed that people tended to give away four times as much of their money if the recipient simply asked for it. If the recipient was silent, the giver only donated a tiny fraction.

The message is clear: Speak up. Vote. And if you can afford to, give back.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Quote of the Day: Richard Schiff

I am not an Obama fanatic. I did not favor a surge in Afghanistan; didn’t support the nature of the financials bailouts; wanted universal health coverage; wanted proper prosecution of the thieves of Wall Street, believe the war on drugs must end yesterday.

But here, now, just shy of four years later I can look back and I can have respect for this man. He said he was going to bail out Detroit and he did; he said he was going to pass the stimulus package to stave off loss of jobs and rebuild infrastructure and he did; he said he was going to surge in Afghanistan to facilitate a later winding down of that war and he did; he said he was going to end the inane war in Iraq and he did. He passed Obamacare like he said he would. He reversed the loss of job growth trend like he said he would. He extended unemployment benefits and helped folks keep their homes like he said he would. And on and on it goes.

— Richard Schiff