Select Page

Income inequality: “Our focus should be on making the most of our own lives, regardless of whether we start at the bottom or the top – not on envying the advantages and achievements of others.” Yaron Brook, author, activist

A headline last week trumpeted that “income inequality reaches new high” and outlined the gap between, as the story put it, the “haves” and “have nots.”

This type of news story always concerns me because it suggests that income in this country should somehow be equal, that we all should be paid the same. Sure, there is valid concern for lower income workers. They have bills to pay, too. But “inequality” is one of those words that must be used with caution, and for some time now it has come to mean, or at least imply, “unfairness.”

Joe makes more money than I do and that’s plainly unfair, complains Jane.

And Jane’s complaint is legitimate, too, if they have the same jobs, the same experience and Jane’s work performance is equal to Joe’s.

But if Joe’s job has more responsibility or if he has a higher skill level, then he deserves to make more.

Regardless of sex, age, color or religion, persons in the workplace deserve to be treated fairly and that means equal pay for equal work. That’s income fairness. I suppose it could mean “equality” if other factors are equal, as well.

What is not income inequality is when one job pays more than another because of skill level or demand.

The “unfair” charge also commonly arises over income taxation. And yet, in 2016, the top 1 percent of income earners paid 37 percent of all federal income taxes, according to the IRS. The top 25 percent of income earners paid 86 percent of the income taxes. Is that fair? It is if you believe in a progressive tax system.

On the other hand, about 45 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, according to the Tax Policy Center.

That said, there is a legitimate concern about the disparity in incomes. South Dakota ranks 41st in that department, which means the income gap here is less than in most states.

A rising tide should lift all boats. I’m not minimizing the income gap, but the real focus should be on figuring out how to make sure that all citizens have an equal opportunity for education and for a career. If those conditions are in place, then the rest is up to the individual.

My income as a newspaper reporter didn’t compare to a classmate who was a successful attorney. That was my choice and there was nothing unfair about it.

Oct. 2, 2019