When justice is not enough

When justice is not enough

The growing equality gap and what can be done about it

The ramifications of the unspeakable tragedy of George Floyd’s murder should extend far and wide throughout our country. Floyd’s death represents the worst of what has become far too common in our society—police brutality and racism. I hope that justice will be done, but the question I find myself asking is this: is justice enough?

My opinion is that George Floyd’s murder signifies more than the raw police brutality African Americans have experienced for generations. Floyd’s death, and the riots that have ensued, signify in a greater sense, the growing disparity between the realities experienced by black people and white people across the United States.

Too often in our country, we look at a crisis through a lens clouded with emotion and it causes us to ignore the facts.

  • When it comes to the economy and race, a Brookings Institution study released in February found that the median wealth held by white families is $171,000 compared to $17,000 held by black families—a ratio of 10 to 1.
  • For every 100 black children who grow up in the bottom fifth of the nation’s income distribution, fewer than three will make it to the top fifth as adults. White children are more than four times as likely to move from the bottom of the income scale to the top fifth, according to a study by researchers at UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, and the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Between 1950 and 1980, the top 1% of wage earners received 10% of the country’s pre-tax income. By 2012, their share of income had jumped to 23%, according to a University of California-Berkeley study. At the same time, the bottom 50% of earners have seen their share of pre-tax income cut almost in half, from 20% to 12.5%.
  • According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 12% of Americans currently live in poverty. Most distressing are the 13 million kids across America living in low-income households, half of whose families are trying to make ends meet on an income that’s below 50% of the poverty line.

If you want to reduce racism in America, the answer is not to send white politicians to the funerals of black people; it is to come up with a simple, bold plan to provide equal opportunity for ALL. A chapter of my recent book is dedicated to this very subject, and I’d like to share some of the ideas with you.

Our political leaders in Washington seem to be creatively bankrupt when it comes to solving big problems like increasing opportunities for all. I would propose that we set the following national economic objectives to be achieved by the year 2030:

  1. Increase the share of income for the bottom 50% of wage earners in this country from the current 12% of pre-tax income to 20%.
  2. Cut wealth gap between white households and black households in half from 10-to-1 to 5-to-1.
  3. Give every kid in America the chance to succeed by reducing childhood poverty by 50%.

In order to accomplish these objectives, we should launch the War on Poverty Act, containing these four specific proposals:

  1. Increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Now. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 doesn’t cut it. This wage adds up to $15,000 per year. A family cannot pay rent, feed themselves, buy clothing and survive. By raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, those most in need would have a more secure footing on the first rung of the economic ladder and would become less dependent on government programs.
  2. Create the Every Kid Has a Chance Program. There are 13 million American children who live in poverty. For those kids whose families are below 50% of the poverty level, the government should offer a simple program to provide:
    1. Three basic meals a day until age 22
    2. Free basic Medicare until age 22
    3. Free education until age 22

This program would give the poorest children in our society a chance in life, and it would create productive, taxpaying citizens for the future.  It would also give kids at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, along with their families, hope for the future.

  1. Have the U.S. Department of Education take over the very poorest-performing public schools in the country. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling,

“It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on an equal level.”

The reality of today’s public education system is that public schools in rich zip codes are significantly better funded than those in poor zip codes. Give states the option to put their worst schools under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Have the federal government devote the resources to put our worst schools on a par with our best schools with proper funding and by creating a special educational SEAL team that would transform these schools with a sense of urgency. If this program works, expand it. If it fails, shut it down, but let’s be creative and try something different.

  1. Let’s pay for the War on Poverty Act of 2021 by scrapping the cap on Social Security. The usual way our government pays for a new program is by raising the debt. Let’s do something different and have those at the top of the ladder share their success and help those at the bottom. Today, the Social Security tax is 6.2%, and it is imposed on up to $137,700 of a person’s income. Above that level, ZERO is taken out for Social Security taxes. Does that seem fair to you? A person who makes $50,000 a year pays $3,100 per year in Social Security taxes. The basketball player or chief executive who makes $10,000,000 per year currently pays $8,537.40. Under this proposal, everyone would pay 6.2% of their income to Social Security which means that the basketball player or the CEO would pay $620,000 per year, not $8,537.40.  This one simple, bold change would fund the 2021 War on Poverty and would transform our nation.

Too often in America, with attention spans becoming shorter and shorter, we move from one tragedy to the next without learning any lessons or making significant changes that can make the United States a more perfect union. Remember Sandy Hook, the 2012 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 young children and six staff members? We mourned, we protested, we heard passionate speeches, we watched our political leaders express their grief and extend their condolences. And chances are that we will do the same thing again and do nothing to fix the root cause of the problem.

George Floyd’s murder should be a wakeup call to actually do something that will provide real hope and real change for millions of Americans who—the facts would tell us—have almost no reason for hope today.

Six months from now, we will elect a president. Instead of dividing the American people with negative campaigns, wouldn’t it be nice to hear from both candidates on what specific, bold plans they have that would actually reduce inequality and racism in America?

Now is the time to ask the hard questions, have the difficult conversations, and create the big ideas. If we do that, then we might find real justice.

About the Author: John Burke

John Burke has worn a lot of hats at Trek Bicycle since his first job packing parts when he was in high school. He's been the president of the company since 1997. He's the author of two books: 12 SIMPLE SOLUTIONS TO SAVE AMERICA and ONE LAST GREAT THING, a memoir about his father, the founder of Trek. He and his wife, Tania, the CEO of Trek Travel, live in Madison, Wisconsin.