One-third of children raised in middle-class families will fall out of the middle class by adulthood.

Share story

AMERICANS are overwhelmingly concerned about income inequality, according to a New York Times poll released in June. Americans also overwhelmingly support policies to address this issue head on.

We only need to look to Latin America, where the Seattle International Foundation has focused its international efforts for the past 20 years, to get a glimpse of America’s future if we do not.

Latin America is considered to be the most unequal region in the world. Our foundation’s work in Latin America gives us a unique perspective on inequality, which makes us especially attuned to the warning signs we see here at home.

In Latin America, widespread poverty exists alongside tremendous wealth. Upward mobility is nearly nonexistent. Opportunities for success and advancement are in large part limited to those in already fortunate circumstances. This has created a permanent lower class trapped in poverty.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Inequality’s impact on the people of Latin America is devastating, reflected in unacceptable education, nutrition and health outcomes. Latin America, and Central America in particular, is among the most violent regions in the world. It’s also among the most violent toward women. Crime is ever-present.

These factors contribute to mass migrations as families seek greater safety, hope and opportunity elsewhere.

Examining the economic and education realities in our own country scares us because we see the same dynamic unfolding here, and we see it getting worse.

In the United States, the growing economic gap is staggering. The top 1 percent holds more overall wealth than the bottom 90 percent and has captured more than half of all income growth since 1993. One-third of children raised in middle-class families will fall out of the middle class by adulthood.

It is imperative that our political system recommit its focus to the issues of education and inequality.”

The opportunity gap is growing too, which reinforces and perpetuates the economic gap. Less than half of all children born into poverty are ready for school by the time they start. Forty-two percent of children with parents in the bottom fifth of earners stay there; only 6 percent reach the top fifth as adults. The gap in standardized-testing scores between rich and poor children is almost 40 percent larger than it was 25 years ago. The gap in college completion between rich and poor children has grown by more than 50 percent since the 1980s.

As public education fails to keep pace and higher education grows increasingly unaffordable, this gap will only widen.

The economist Joseph Stiglitz has said, “Inequality is the cause and consequence of the failure of the political system, and it contributes to the instability of our economic system, which in turn contributes to increased inequality — a vicious downward spiral.”

Nationally — and particularly in Washington state — the failure to fund our schools is our political system’s greatest failure. Reversing this trend is the key to addressing persistent inequality.

Students living in poverty will not have a fair chance to succeed so long as we continue to underfund our public schools, allow property-tax rich districts to invest exclusively in their own children, let opportunity be determined by ZIP code, income and race, and perpetuate the continuing segmentation of our society.

As income inequality has grown in this country, long-term upward mobility has slowed. Intergenerational mobility — how children succeed relative to their parents — is lower in the United States than in almost any other rich nation in the world.

The American dream no longer distinguishes the United States from Latin America and the instability we see there. Our democracy is still marginally functional, which may be all that separates us from the corruption, violence and despair that characterizes the worst situations in Latin America.

It is imperative that our political system recommit its focus to the issues of education and inequality.

If it does not, we will create a permanent lower class, excluded from the opportunities, career success and economic prosperity that once defined the American dream. Our economy will suffer, and so will our democracy.

But government cannot tackle this challenge alone.

Our work in Latin America has taught us an important lesson. Let’s learn from it. All sectors of society — nonprofits, faith-based institutions, businesses, civil society and the press — must also come together and commit to policies that open the doors of opportunity for all.