Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Too Little of a Good Thing: Social Justice in the USA

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This is a guest post by Daniel Schraad-Tischler and Najim Azahaf, who also work with the Bertelsmann Foundation in Gütersloh, Germany.

On Friday, March 2, the Bertelsmann Foundation presented for the first time to a US audience the findings of “Social Justice in the OECD – How Do the Member States Compare? This report, released by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in late 2011, compared 31 OECD nations on their fostering of six factors that contribute to social justice: poverty prevention, access to education, labor-market inclusion, social cohesion and non-discrimination, health, and intergenerational justice. The United States ranked poorly, coming in 27th out of 31.

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The report focused on areas that are hot-button topics of debate in the 2012 presidential campaign, which made the US presentation at the National Press Club in Washington, DC timely. Adam Kushner of the National Journal moderated a debate on the ability of the US to improve its performance in a period when demands for fiscal austerity are growing and Americans are showing a greater hesitance for big government. The panelists were Bertelsmann Stiftung Board Member Aart de Geus, Senior Government Relations Advisor and former Congressman (R-PA) Philip English, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut gave a special presentation on the results of recent polling on issues relevant to social justice in the US.

Too Little of a Good Thing: Social Justice in the USA from Bertelsmann Foundation on Vimeo.

Mr de Geus launched the discussion by noting that the report did not use the term “social justice” as a synonym for “socialistic justice”. He said the study was a purely non-partisan exercise on a long-term issue that needed to be raised in the US and Europe. He added that social justice had become an urgent issue in the current era of economic crisis but problems of inequality and unequal opportunity would exist even in times of greater prosperity.

Congressman English praised the report for identifying a serious problem. He said that Americans were under “enormous financial pressure” in a period of slow economic growth. While he linked growth with the ability to foster social justice, the Congressman stated that income mobility, which is high in the US, also needed to be considered in any calculation of social justice.

Mr Trumka acknowledged that growth was a factor in social justice but added that a nation’s wealth must be distributed across society. This, he said, has not happened recently in the US. He cited stagnating wages and low family savings as evidence. At the same time, the rich have gotten richer, and they are not spending, leading to lower aggregate demand. Mr Trumka insisted that a nation can enjoy economic growth and social justice simultaneously, and said that Germany’s recent performance in the financial crisis had recently shown that this is possible. He lamented the weaker state of US unions and this development’s contribution to declining social justice in the country.

Mr Kohut, presenting recent Pew Research Center polling, said that a “sense of inequality is as American as apple pie”. Americans accept that as part of their social system, but they decry a “lack of fairness in public policy”. He said that Americans perceive that current policy is not designed to boost the middle class even though they believe it is important for government to pursue that goal. Mr Kohut added that Americans are disturbed by this lack of fairness but are “outraged” at continuing large bonuses on Wall Street. He concluded his presentation by confirming that individualism remains far stronger in the US than in Europe. At the same time, far more Americans have found themselves in precarious financial straits during which they could not afford food and healthcare.

Congressman English interjected that Americans are rankled by the wealthy who always seem to get a bailout when things go wrong. He called for upward and downward income mobility as a reflection of US economic dynamism, and blamed Republicans and Democrats for not doing more to create conditions for better economic and social opportunities.

Mr Trumka responded by paraphrasing President Obama: “Economic inequality is the defining issue of our time.”

Mr Kohut agreed, noting that the US public wants more economic opportunity while remaining wary of government activism and a large safety net. The challenge is that at the same time Americans want government to act.

The discussion ended with a focus on that safety net. Congressman English, citing the Bertelsmann Stiftung report, noted the importance of intergenerational justice. He said countries must be able to fund commitments and entitlements to current and future generations. Mr Trumka insisted that funding the thin US safety net was possible and that this could be done while simultaneously creating jobs.

About 80 people attended the presentation of Social Justice in the OECD – How Do the Member States Compare”. The audience comprised representatives of Capitol Hill, the diplomatic and think-tank communities, academia, and the US and European media.