Around the Institute

America and Inequality

June 1, 2017  • Summit on Inequality and Opportunity

Inequality has always been a national problem, but Americans today are plagued by historically high income and wealth inequality, stalled mobility, and a stagnating standard of living. It’s a dangerous combination that almost 10 years after the financial crisis has Americans working harder to stay in place, with many left behind by a rapidly changing globalized economy.

In March, the Aspen Institute Summit on Inequality and Opportunity gathered more than 400 policymakers, thought leaders, social entrepreneurs, and philanthropists in Washington, DC, for a day of dialogue about the widening opportunity gap as well as the innovative solutions to inequality taking root around the country.

“America doesn’t have to stand for just a wealthy few,” said Michael J. Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, Texas. “That’s not who we are or who we have to be.” Ten years ago, Sorrell took over the school, which then had a 1 percent graduation rate, almost no cash on hand, and a student population just about everyone had given up on.

Americans today are plagued by historically high income and wealth inequality.

“We had to make some very difficult financial choices, and we had to have some tough conversations,” Sorrell said. The circumstances forced him to rethink basic assumptions about the promise of college and his responsibility to Paul Quinn students and their families, 80 to 85 percent of whom are eligible for Pell Grants. Ten years later, Paul Quinn is down a football team, up a two-acre organic farm on the field where the team once played, and pioneering the first urban work-college model in the country.

A poet, a grocer, a steel manufacturer, a chef, a senator, a professor—at the Summit, the story of inequality and opportunity was told by a diverse set of voices who all do unique but interconnected work toward a common goal. “All of us who work on social change are going to be so much more effective if we embrace that interconnectedness,” said Rachel Schneider, co-author of The Financial Diaries. “If in our youth-opportunity programs we think about financial well-being, why not housing or health care, or anything?”

All of us who work on social change are so much more effective if we embrace that interconnectedness.

The Summit, launched in 2015, represents the Institute’s commitment to understanding the complicated, overlapping barriers to economic opportunity in the United States. It also reflects the power of collaboration between the Institute’s public programs division and seven policy programs, which joined forces to plan and present it. “Working together, the public-program team was able to design an agenda that leveraged the diverse, issue-specific knowledge and networks of each policy program, and layered and connected them in a profoundly effective way,” says Ida Rademacher, the executive director of the Institute’s Financial Security Program. “The Summit is truly a testament to the saying that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.'”

The diverse perspectives at the Summit meant that speakers could showcase their different approaches to the complex issues underpinning inequality. “If we come out of this room today having the hard discussions, and challenging ideas that are so easy to accept and not push back on, then we’re going to get to a better place,” Mike Curtin, CEO of DC Central Kitchen, said. “What do we mean when we talk about the American Dream? As if it’s a box of cornflakes on a grocery store shelf, where anybody can walk up and say, ‘I’m going to take my American Dream!’ That’s absurd. Let’s be honest about that and let’s try to fix it.”

The Summit is a collaboration between the Institute’s public programs division and seven policy programs: Ascend, the Economic Opportunities Program, the Forum for Community Solutions, the Community Strategies Group, the Financial Security Program, the Future of Work Initiative, and the Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation.