Business Must Re-imagine Its Mission To Save “The Other America”

Business is the only institution that can produce inclusive prosperity and growth for both Americas and all our people. And it must do that ASAP.
Peter Georgescu, Chairman Emeritus of Young and Rubicam

In 2012 Charles Murray, the conservative economist, was among the first to identify this dramatic bifurcation in our country in his best seller, “Coming Apart.”  He described with clarity the tragic economic, social, and moral divide between the two Americas.

The America which today is described as still world leader; the nation with a booming economy; historic low unemployment; with nosebleed, record high stock market; and powerful GDP growth—reflects mostly some 20% of America.  In that smaller America, all the statistics apply.

In the other 70-80% of America, the economy is horrific.  The net worth of the vast majority of Americans has still not recovered from the 2008 crisis—where homes were lost, where net worth was decimated, and generally, where wages are still below inflation!

The boundaries of this majority of America are not described by traditional geography.  This divide happens by zip codes.  From almost anyone’s home in the gloriously wealthy America, there’s a nearby zip code where we find the “have much too less” aka the “Other America.”

Tragically the citizens of the two Americas seldom meet.  To the folks in wealthy enclaves, the reality of the Other America is opaque.  Yes, there are poor people in the country, they know, but probably relatively few.  We see them in movies, documentaries and in the papers.  But we don’t know what they’re like, how they live, how their education fares—the real devastation just doesn’t come up in our consciousness.  This is ignorance, this is denial, this is willful disregard and neglect.

The stock market, GDP growth and unemployment numbers don’t describe the Other America, in fact, they are mostly irrelevant to the Other America.  For example, 84% of the value of the stock market is in the hands of the top 10% of the richest among us.  According to David Leonhardt of The New York Times, the chart below shows that the number of able-bodied men of working age, who are not employed, has grown rapidly since 2000 and is now near all-time highs.  This in contrast with the 3.7% currently reported as unemployed—when people respond to the question, “Have you looked for a job in the last six months?”–the number we choose celebrates and trumpets with fanfare….

Yet measurements for the Other America actually do exist.  Somehow no one in government seems eager to share them with all of us.  The information that follows can be calculated from the data residing in the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other public sources:

• Nearly 60% of the US homes have to borrow some money to put food on the table by the end of most months.

• The upper middle class (arithmetically between the 60% of insolvent homes and the top 20% of the wealthy America) at the end of a year have, on average, a disposable income of $8,500 (after paying for all household expenses).

• In terms of public education (supported primarily by local real estate taxes) the quality of education, physical plant, facilities and extracurricular programs, in the Other America, are abysmal. Despite many superb private schools and selected charter schools in wealthy zip codes, America’s children rank toward the very bottom of developed nations in terms of math and local language competence.  So we have achieved a near perfect segregation in our schools by income.  Oh yes, in the Other America zip codes, there is almost no early education for three year olds and very few affordable kindergartens in the states that have them.

• Today credit card debt is at an all-time high and so is total debt. The education debt is now at a record $1.5 trillion.  These burdens are shouldered almost exclusively by the “haves too much less.”

• In 2018, some 8-10 million Americans have lost their health insurance and for everyone, insurance premiums just went up some 20% or more.

• The difference in longevity between the top 1% of Americans and the bottom 1% has reached 15 years.

• As another example of disparity between the two Americas, the survival rates of severe breast cancer in the top 20% of the economy is 60%; in the bottom 20%, it is 20%..

• In 2018, wages for American employees are still just below the inflation rate—and they have been nearly flat for some forty years.

• The stock market (with few short-term blips) continues at record highs and that benefits primarily the top 20% of us.

• The Wall Street Journal headlined recently that salaries on Wall Street are now higher than pre-2008 crisis levels.

• Helped by a 40% cut in business taxes, corporate profits are also at record levels and so are the payoffs to shareholders, driven by record dividends and stock buybacks. As a direct result, the deficit will increase shortly toward a trillion dollars annually—to pay for the cuts.  The benefits to the Other America de minimis.

Of course, just as Charles Murray found some six years ago, the societal health and stability of the Other America in terms of the divorce rates and single parent homes negatively affect the well-being of these less educated, poorer, less healthy, Other America—the vast majority of our nation.

The 2016 election season saw both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appeal strongly to this group. Trump of course, was elected President.  Yet the plight of this Other America has not changed in any fundamental way.  So far, one sees no constructive actions nor plans to help address this gross inequality of income, of life, of opportunity.  Hope, the belief in the American Dream has largely been extinguished.  For now, the inequality gap between the two Americas is getting wider every day. How long can this situation continue?

Yet, hope we must have.  There are signs of constructive discontent with the status quo.  Business can and must do more to help, by compensating employees more fairly.  More CEOs are speaking out on social issues.  More companies have found ways to engage their employees to create more value and share inclusively in the resulting benefits:  Delta Airlines, Costco, Home Depot, Starbucks, Mastercard, and many others are showing the way.  And so all business can and must do more.  Business is the only institution that can produce inclusive prosperity and growth for both Americas and all our people.  And it must re-imagine its mission and its culture and do just that and do it with urgency.

In the end, we are one country.  We are not squatters here.  We are citizens with a responsibility for all of us in this nation-family.  In the long term, we can only thrive as one country, where future prosperity, future opportunity and our dreams for a better life will be open to all our children and future generations.