Can Equity Benefit Everyone?

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This saying, first used by Sir Winston Churchill in the mid-1940s as we were approaching the end of World War II, might also be applicable today as we approach the end of the COVID crisis and create a “new normal.” Could we use this crisis to create what author Heather McGhee calls a “solidarity dividend,” in which a nation with more racial equity would benefit everyone?

McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, released earlier this year, has a subtitle that encapsulates her theme: “What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” As many of us continue our journey through the sea of anti-racism books, it was refreshing to find a book that lays out economic arguments for combating racism—and particularly arguments that should appeal to people regardless of their race.

McGhee uses a great illustration for her argument, a public swimming pool that was closed in Montgomery, AL, in 1959 as part of the opposition to integrated swimming pools. This closure, of course, also imposed costs on the white population, which lost the use of a pool. McGhee goes on to make similar arguments on how the lack of investment—and sometimes disinvestment—in services like Medicaid, welfare and other programs has often been motivated by racism but created pain for white populations as well—and particularly for poor whites.

A solidarity dividend is McGhee’s term for the benefits that are shared by an entire society when inequities are corrected. Examples provided in her book include the push for a $15/hour minimum wage by workers that were largely people of color and provided benefits for others when it was adopted. Another example is a refinery in Richmond, CA, that was forced to reduce pollution and provide community benefits because of a push that started with low-income residents but soon broadened to include nearby high-income homeowners.

USC economist Manuel Pastor used a similar term when the COVID epidemic first started, describing what he called “solidarity economics” in an article with Professor Chris Benner as a means of combating the inequities that led to disproportionate suffering by people of color and low-income populations. Pastor’s piece, published in March 2020, called on the State of California and country to invest in services that would help people of color get the health care, housing and jobs they need to avoid the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. Comparing the COVID crisis to Katrina, the authors said that both situations revealed “deeply rooted problems in America.”

Pastor and Benner also point out that people sometimes pull together during a crisis and urges us to use this situation to correct inequities: “We also urgently need to think long-term—both about the all-too-predictable things that got us into this crisis, and how we can refashion our economy and society as we eventually emerge…Moving forward will require not just emergency actions but attention to and alignment with efforts to fundamentally restructure how we build and sustain our economy.”

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