How can we live in the United States, one of the most prosperous societies on earth, and leave people behind so they depend on sporadic, charitable support for something as basic as food?

Inequality—the wolf at the door

He walked over slowly, a bit reticent, his bag of food waiting on the table by the door.  He was in his seventies; originally perhaps from Eastern Europe, English didn’t come naturally.  I was one of many volunteers conducting a survey on food insecurity (a euphemism for hunger) at a local agency.  When we came to the question about whether he was sometimes hungry because he couldn’t afford to buy food he answered yes, almost apologetically.  There was a tear in the corner of his eye, and in mine.  There was something about his quiet grace that was deeply moving.  I found myself wondering how can we live in the United States, one of the most prosperous societies on earth, and leave people behind so they depend on sporadic, charitable support for something as basic as food.

This one person with his bag of food brings us face to face with the core issue of social justice framed by David Miller in Principles of Social Justice as: “How the good and bad things in life should be distributed among the members of a human society.” Recognizing that on this subject there are different views and that, as Miller puts it, “the pursuit of social justice in the twenty-first century will be considerably tougher than it has been in the last half of the twentieth. . .  we will have to think much harder about. . . what the universe of social justice should be in a world in which economic, social and political boundaries no longer neatly coincide.”  Central to this issue of social justice is economic inequality.  The emergence of the Occupy movement in 2011 brought important issues to the surface, which are intertwined with social responsibility. At their heart these issues are about gross, sustained, and growing inequality, evident in many places, and particularly in our country.

When we look at prosperity and inequality in different places around the world we find that in most countries high prosperity coincides with lower levels of inequality. As societies develop their economic base, the fruits of that economic base are distributed broadly. This happened in our country from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s. However, our level of inequality has increased significantly over the past forty years, to a point today where it resembles that of a developing country. We are unusual now in having both high prosperity, though not the highest in the world, and high inequality. We have a particular challenge since our society is so unequal. Here is David Shipler’s view: “The forgotten [in America] wage a daily struggle to keep themselves from falling over the cliff. It is time to be ashamed.” It raises serious questions about the ability of our society to maintain its current level of prosperity if the level of inequality were to stay the same or increase. It raises serious moral questions about our sense of community and how we would like all in our society to be treated. A critical question is, where would we like our society to move in the future? Is it to move toward further inequality and economic and social deprivation, or to greater equality and the benefits that brings? I suggest that the answer is clear—the path of greater equality is vastly preferable.

Parts of this introductory article are excerpted from Business Behaving Well:  Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing, 2013, edited by Ron Elsdon, Potomac Books, Inc., http://www.potomacbooksinc.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=293765

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