Conversations on Diversity: California’s Inequalities Harm Everyone

Frederica Shockley, Economics (photo KM)
What are the economic and social issues of inequality in California? How can we understand them? What are the implications of continued inequality for all of us? Economist Frederica Shockley and political scientist Jon Ebeling addressed these questions in the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies' first "Conversation on Diversity" for this semester.

California, with an increasingly ethnically diverse population, has had some disturbing economic and political trends. Over the last several years there has been what Shockley called "a tremendous backlash and attempt to do away with the programs that have been quite constructive over the years." Ebeling referred to this trend as "vicious efforts at taking away opportunities built into some of our social and political and economic processes."

Shockley discussed the effects of inequality as equity and efficiency issues. She asked, "Is it fair that we have large segments of our population that have for centuries been unable to enjoy the same benefits, to enjoy the same income, to enjoy the same economic well-being as the majority?" While the answer seemed to be no, Shockley suggested that this was a matter of opinion.
Jon Ebeling, Political Science (photo KM)

As an economist, she prefers the more objective standard of efficiency. "Efficiency says we need to have an economic system that fully utilizes resources and that produces the goods and services people want and produces those goods and services at the lowest possible cost." Looking at labor resources or workers, we see education and training differences. By turning our backs to large segments of the population, inequality throws away these productive resources, and that affects everyone. "The average standard of living will decline," Shockley warned. "Our economy, and the individuals in our economy are better off if we have a productive labor force."

The income gaps among Californians are increasing. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study compared incomes from 1978-1980 with incomes from 1994-1996. The lowest three-fifths of Californians lost income, while the highest two-fifths gained income. The poorest fifth experienced a 27 percent drop in income, while the richest fifth experienced a 30 percent increase in income.

There are more African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans in the lower three-fifths. Ebeling pointed out that this correlation between racial groupings and income distributions correlates with unequal access to education and representation in government. He noted that this "interconnectedness between economic characteristics and political characteristics" results in minorities being shut out of the political process.

Ebeling said, "The kinds of legislation that have been passed in the context of Propositions 187 and 209 and now this bilingual effort—that's going to exacerbate the relationships we have with each other, and I think that will ultimately come to harm our capability to be a productive state."

The lively discussion that followed the presentation centered on the relative impacts of classism and racism on inequality including issues of work availability, cultural differences, and the shared responsibility to help others. Several people emphasized the importance of finding ways to talk with each other across the class and race barriers existing in California.

The next "Conversation on Diversity" will be led by Sara Trechter, Frank Li, and David Hargreaves discussing linguistic diversity. Be sure to stop by BMU 222 on Wednesday, February 25, at noon and join the conversation.


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