How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Equitably balancing the burden in New Jersey

Income inequality - the increased concentration of wealth in a small sliver of society - is the seminal issue of our times. Inequality isn't inevitable. We can reduce it through the policy choices we make.

Governor Phil Murphy's new budget contains $107 million in new money to help make New Jersey "number one in the nation in universal pre-K and free college tuition for all." His goal is to reduce the growing achievement gap in our state that is fueling increased income inequality. Of the $50 million in budget for community colleges, $45 million would go to families with household incomes below $45,000. It would be according to Governor Murphy "a down payment" towards his ultimate objective of providing free community college to everyone regardless of their circumstances in three years.

We are in the midst of the highest level of income disparity ever. The top one-tenth of 1 percent owns nearly as much as the bottom 90 percent and the top 10 percent captured a record 48.2 percent of the total U.S. income. According to Paul Krugman, "95 percent of the gains from the economic recovery since 2009 have gone to the famous; 1 percent ... more than 60 percent of the gains went to the top 0.1 percent, people with annual incomes of more than $1.9 million."

Income inequality in New Jersey mirrors the picture nationally. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, "The top 5 percent of New Jersey households made an average of $400,367 in 2015. That's five times as much as the middle 20 percent who took in $84,184, and 16 times the poorest 20 percent getting by on $25,646 a year."

Real wages of workers on factory floors are lower than they were in the early '70s. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was concerned about this. He said, "You can have great wealth in the hands of a small group of people in America, or you can have a democracy. You can't have both." Likewise the French economist, Thomas Picketty, in his best-seller "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," wrote that "extremely high levels" of wealth inequality are "incompatible with meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies."

Professor James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago made the case for investing in our children as the best means for achieving long-term income equality when he wrote: "Our choice in these difficult economic times is not just whether to spend or cut, but whether to choose knowledge over conventional wisdom. Will we put money in programs that pay off? Quality early-childhood programs for the disadvantaged children are not "entitlements" or bottomless wells of social spending. They foster human flourishing and they improve our economic productivity in the process."

Up until the 1970s the U.S. topped the world in mass education. In recent years the world overtook us. According to Nicholas Kristof we fell down particularly in early education where only 38 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in education in the U.S. versus 70 percent for other countries. If we are genuinely concerned about reducing inequality we should be funding evidence-based programs that provide America's children with the opportunity to succeed in life. According to the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, high-quality early childhood education yields long-term educational benefits and reduces the likelihood of the child being left back and "any policy intervention that can substantially reduce the likelihood of grade retention is a tremendous boon for the kids and their families and ultimately for taxpayers."

The problem with the Governor's pre-K and community college proposals are that the payback is not immediate and taxpayers will have to wait for a return on their investment. This could result in many over burdened New Jersey taxpayers questioning whether Governor Murphy is too willing to place an additional burden on them.

Public employees could question whether it is fair to ask them to pay a larger share of their health care coverage while offering new free services. The same goes for the State's wealthiest residents who are being asked by the Murphy administration to pay more in spite of being hit with higher federal taxes as a result of the capping of state and local taxes. They could argue as Margaret Thatcher did that, "The problem ... is that you eventually run out of other people's money."

Given New Jersey realities, Governor Murphy's goal should have been to make pre-K and community colleges affordable and accessible to all. As a dyed-in-the-wool progressive who put my self through community college caddying summers at a local golf course on Long Island, I believe in balancing the burden. For me that mean the rich should pay their fair share and not be able to manipulate the rules of the game for their own advantage.

When it comes to the provision of services, e.g. pre-K and community colleges that can level the playing field, I'd like to see them offered on a sliding-scale basis, based on one's ability to pay, rather providing them free across-the-board. That makes more sense to me given the recent pronouncement by our State's Treasurer, Elizabeth Muoio, that "It's time to face facts. Our economic engine is on life supports."