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How Inequality Fueled the Crisis

CHICAGO – Before the recent financial crisis, politicians on both sides of the aisle in the United States egged on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-backed mortgage agencies, to support low-income lending in their constituencies. There was a deeper concern behind this newly discovered passion for housing for the poor: growing income inequality.

Since the 1970’s, wages for workers at the 90th percentile of the wage distribution in the US –such as office managers – have grown much faster than wages for the median worker (at the 50th percentile), such as factory workers and office assistants. A number of factors are responsible for the growth in the 90/50 differential.

Perhaps the most important is that technological progress in the US requires the labor force to have ever greater skills. A high school diploma was sufficient for office workers 40 years ago, whereas an undergraduate degree is barely sufficient today. But the education system has been unable to provide enough of the labor force with the necessary education. The reasons range from indifferent nutrition, socialization, and early-childhood learning to dysfunctional primary and secondary schools that leave too many Americans unprepared for college.

The everyday consequence for the middle class is a stagnant paycheck and growing job insecurity. Politicians feel their constituents’ pain, but it is hard to improve the quality of education, for improvement requires real and effective policy change in an area where too many vested interests favor the status quo.