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We are in a pretty good place here in the US, or so an unprecedented decade of economic expansion would have us believe. But what’s true in aggregate isn’t necessarily true for all the component groups. Breaking that “we” down into smaller societal units starts to paint a very different picture.

To see the finer details of America’s economic portrait, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program launched its conversation series, Opportunity in America, which will examine economic opportunity in the US and implications for individuals, families, and communities across the country. On Friday, October 25, the series kicked off with the half-day session, “Opportunity in America: What Does It Mean?” at the Aspen Institute headquarters in Washington, DC.

“Far too many people in the United States are excluded from opportunity,” notes Maureen Conway, in her opening remarks. “Far too many individuals are working hard but falling behind. Far too many families are struggling to care for their children, and are concerned that their children’s struggles will be even greater than their own.”

Conway, vice president for policy programs at the Aspen Institute and executive director of Economic Opportunities Program, has spent her career studying these issues, and she knows that this exclusion isn’t random. “Too often race, place, and gender play an outsized role in determining who’s let in and who’s shut out of economic opportunity.”

Panelist Aparna Mathur, resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lays out the statistics sharply. Though the unemployment rate is under 4% for the first time in 60 years, she says, “There’s a lot of heterogeneity in who’s actually getting those jobs. You look at the African-American unemployment rate – that’s still at about 5%. You look at the teenage unemployment rate – that’s at 12%. You look at people with disability – that’s over 8%.”

Data for generational mobility is even more disappointing, with many communities showing serious precarity in their ability to improve their economic situations. Where a person lives makes a lot of difference.

Intergenerationally, we’re just not doing as well, and the reasons for that are societal and systemic. “Do you live in an area of concentrated poverty that restricts your ability to get a good job and to put your child in a good school?” Mathur asks. “How easy is it for you to access that social network and community?”

“Economic mobility is not one thing, it’s a million different stories, and piecing together those stories over time over place over gender and race it is critically important.”

— Aparna Mathur, American Enterprise Institute

Paul Osterman, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Professor of Human Resources and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, sees additional, related forces at work. He notes that fears of job loss because of automation are largely overblown, and that technology tends to produce more jobs than it displaces. He also sees that fears of “Uberization” and free-agent underemployment are not major factors.

But human agency — employers — create barriers where they don’t need to. “When a labor market is loose, employer job requirements go way up in terms of experience and education,” he says, “and when the labor market is tight, for the same jobs employers ask for less because they can’t find people. Somehow they get the work done.” People are shut out of opportunity because of “how we define a job, and who can do the job and who can get into the job.”

And while the employment numbers may look rosy, they paper over the problem of underemployment. Michelle De La Isla, mayor of Topeka and an Aspen Institute Rodel Fellow, points out that the chronic and compounding problem of low wages and underemployment is creating families who are “not able to invest the way they want in their children, and that don’t allow them to have access to schools that are providing the education that their children want.”

But De La Isla is not about to let us off by claiming, as many do, that the system is broken. “The system isn’t broken,” she says. “The system is the system, and it’s doing just fine.”

So how, then, do we get a new system in place, so that we, as a society, can get to a better place?

The first step may be recognizing the racial roots of the problem, something too many people pretend we’ve fixed. Gayatri Agnew, senior director at Walmart.org, uses a metaphor about dying fish in a lake as a way to help us understand the systemic failures of our current system, particularly regarding race. She further notes that there is no such thing as a “national economy” in any real sense. Instead, we have a collection of regional economies, each with their own issues and needs.

Perhaps because we have no single economy, we as citizens aren’t sharing a common view of opportunity in America. Those who are doing well see the rosy statistics and at least some hope for improvement, but minorities, in particular, have a very different view, because they are living a different reality. Gary Cunningham, president and CEO of Prosperity Now, says, “I know we have to work on the policy and we have to look at the political, but we also have to change people’s hearts and minds about the other — and everybody has to see themselves in the circle of human concern.” At current rates, it will take hundreds of years for minorities to get equality, and this calls for disruption in the current system. If this doesn’t happen, says Cunningham, “We’re going to keep getting the same results.”

It’s tempting to trot out the “and corporations are leading the way” trope, particularly in light of a heralded announcement from the Business Roundtable, but there’s no doubt businesses are following as more consumers have begun to recognize — and call out — the inequality of opportunity in America today.

Still, that announcement, and similar philosophies, demonstrate that corporations can be intentional about building good jobs. Erin Patinkin, CEO of Ovenly, says (with characteristic frankness), “’Good jobs’ is a moral obligation. Not having good jobs is the biggest BS stuff that has ever happened to this economy.”

Good jobs — one part of the expansion of opportunity in America — is good business. Aon’s Kevin Johnson notes that diversity of background leads to diversity of thought: “It breeds incredible innovation.”

As this conversation continues, the Economic Opportunities Program will continue to explore the ways race, gender, and place exacerbate our economic divides — and search for a better system for all of us.

Join the conversation and keep track of upcoming events at https://www.aspeninstitute.org/series/opportunity-in-america/

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