blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff
By Axel Västermark
On the plane from Stockholm to New York I finished Joseph Stieglitz’s book The Price of Inequality, which I had not put down since I bought the book a week earlier. His basic thesis is the level of economic inequality in the United States is hindering economic growth, stifling innovation, increasing the democratic deficit and dissolving the fundamental idea that United States were build on, namely “the right to equal opportunity”. He ends with proposing — let’s tax our money back and invest in what U.S. desperately needs, education, infrastructure and welfare. Economic inequality is a trending topic. As far as rock-star status goes for economics Piketty, Stieglitz and Krugman all focusing inequality are in the spotlight and is getting the media’s attention.
The U.S. is not alone in facing the problem of economic inequality. Although the level of income inequality in my home country is less than the U.S., Sweden the number of children living in relative poverty in Sweden has increased from 3.7 to 10 precent between 2005-2010. In Southern Europe youth unemployment has reached more than 50 percent in both Spain and Greece, giving new meaning to the phrase “lost generation”. Many BRIC-countries have decreased their income disparities but the income inequality in these countries remains among the highest in the world.
I support a more progressive tax policy that would redistribute the wealth that is now concentrated to a fraction of the world’s population in a more egalitarian way. But I also argue that we need to widen our focus beyond purely economic inequalities. In order to do this we need the use the framework of human rights.
I want to raise two points here that I think have been omitted in the debate about inequality. Firstly, inequality is more than economic inequality; we need to include political and social inequality in our discussion. Secondly, when talking about inequality we need to move beyond the discussion beyond an individual focus and also discuss and analyze it at a group level and international level. When I attended a session during the CSW called “Women Learning Partnership,” professor Abena Busia said that, for activism to be successful, we have to, as a worker dismantling a building, understand the structures that uphold unjust hierarchies and carefully dismantle it in order for the roof not to fall on us. The structure that is upholding the unequal distribution of wealth is not just a structure of favoring wealthy people and neglecting the needs for poor people; the same structure also favors whiteness, cisgenderism, functionalism and heterosexuality to name a few examples. If the struggle against unfair wealth distribution does not tackle these other structures I am afraid we either won’t succeed or, to use Busia’s allegory, the roof will fall on us all.
As an intern at GYC I have seen the power of using a more human rights oriented framework, than strictly economic. I have met people who are actively carrying out tremendously important work to fight inequality. NYCAAH is not only helping people who are food insecure, but raising questions of why it is more common in families where one adult is disabled, or among hispanics or african-american communities and advocating policies that would take these factors into account. The organization Theatre of the Oppressed used theatre to initiate productive dialogue of why and how we can change the homelessness and its affect on LGBTQ-youths last summer program with the NYC-program. When I attended a session at the Open Society Foundation on behalf of Global Youth Connect, I was introduced to Dan Losen’s book Closing the School Discipline Gap: Equitable Remedies for Excessive Exclusion, which discusses inequality in education, and how the harsh policies are affecting groups differently. This is why the human rights framework most be used in order to diagnose and see all the components of the structure that we wish to dismantle. In other words we need a human rights and intersectional approach to truly challenge inequality.
I do not wish to suggest that there is some simple solution to what is a complex problem. My only proposal is that we move beyond the impersonal statistics and start discussing and fighting inequality on all levels using human rights as a starting point.