Within Reach

Within Reach

The United States is at historic levels of income inequality. What will it take to balance the scales between low-income workers and the top 1 percent?
Michelle Boston

When Zinahi Rodriguez turned 18, fresh out of high school, she took a retail job in downtown Los Angeles. She was excited. Her plan was to help support her parents, both garment workers, with whom she and a younger brother lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Koreatown.

The experience was demoralizing. She ended up working nine to 10 hours a day without any breaks. Her paycheck barely made a dent in her family’s expenses.

“I worked there for a month until I realized that I was getting paid $22 per day,” Rodriguez said. “It was a real struggle to help my family.”

Now 23 years old, Rodriguez is committed to fighting for workers’ rights, in particular for a decent living wage — a movement that has been steadily gaining momentum since fast-food workers in New York City launched the “Fight for $15” in 2012. Their stance is that workers employed by multibillion dollar companies shouldn’t be struggling to put food on their tables.

What Rodriguez’s experience underlines is a deeper issue that has been percolating throughout the United States for some time — an ever-widening gap between the income of the working poor and that of the wealthy.

In fact, President Obama has called the growing inequality and lack of upward mobility in the U.S. “the defining challenge of our time.”

Manuel Pastor, Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society and Social Change and professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity at USC Dornsife, noted, “There’s been a very rapid uptick of income inequality, particularly in the last 25 years.

“The share of income going to the top 1 percent of Americans is as high as it was during the years before the Great Depression, a period of extreme inequality,” said Pastor, who is an economist by training. “Much of it has to do with pay for CEOs and huge returns on capital gains.

“Those at the top of the income distribution have seen significant gains in their income while the working poor have seen absolute falls in their wage income over that period of time. The people in the middle have basically seen either wage stagnation or declines in their wages.” 

The divide between low-income earners and the upper class is staggering. The average annual salary for chief executive officers is $12.2 million while the average worker takes home $34,645 per year, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. That means for every dollar that an average U.S. worker makes, a CEO makes $354. The amount a worker takes away is even less if that worker is a minority. In 2012, the median hourly wage for workers of color was $5 less than the median wage for white workers, according to the National Equity Atlas (NEA). That is a difference of $10,400 a year.

A number of surveys reveal that, while the American public is aware that some inequities in income and wealth distribution exist, they are usually far off in understanding just how deep the divide is. One study in Perspectives on Psychological Science asked Americans to estimate distributions of wealth in the U.S. Respondents overwhelmingly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the U.S., believing that the wealthiest fifth of the population held about 59 percent of the wealth. In reality, the top 20 percent of U.S. households own more than 84 percent of the wealth while the bottom 40 percent own just 0.3 percent of the wealth.

Less Income Means Fewer Opportunities

What is more problematic is that economic inequality leads to social inequality.

Research, such as the work being done at USC Dornsife’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), shows that when people grow up in poverty they are more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods with less access to clean air, healthy foods or a quality education. Disproportionately, those communities tend to be made up of people of color. That translates to poorer health outcomes and lower levels of education for minority populations, which in turn often mean jobs that offer lower wages. It is a difficult cycle to break.

Some suggest that one way to reduce inequalities is to raise the minimum wage to provide workers at the bottom income tiers with salaries that offer a more stable life for them and their families.

L.A. has been among several cities leading the movement to legislate a $15 minimum wage, along with New York City, Seattle and San Francisco. Seattle, L.A. and San Francisco have already adopted laws that will bring their minimum wages up to $15 over the next few years, and New York and other cities are poised to follow.

Meanwhile, the current federal minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour. The rate varies according to the city and state, but many see the changes that are taking place in cities such as L.A. as a precursor to a hike in the U.S. minimum, which saw its last increase in 2008.

“One way to look at what’s happening right now is that Washington can’t solve its budget problem, it can’t solve the nation’s immigration problem, and it can’t solve the low-wage problem, so states and metropolitan areas are beginning to move ahead on their own on almost all of those issues,” Pastor said.

California is a model of that theory. A swell to raise the wage to $15 is surging through the state.

California voted two years ago to increase its minimum wage (then $8 an hour, and now $9 an hour) up to $10 an hour in 2016. But advocates are pushing for more. They are currently collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would take it up to $15 an hour statewide.

Meanwhile, detractors argue that increases in the minimum wage will lead to layoffs and small-business owners losing their livelihoods.

Landscape Center

Low-income communities tend to have less access to things many people take for granted such as healthy foods and quality education. Researchers at USC Dornsife are creating ways to effectively overcome these challenges by designing programs to encourage healthy living and establishing interventions that forge pathways to higher education.

However, polls show that, overall, Americans favor raising the minimum wage.

“And it’s not just a matter of red states versus blue states, as evidenced by the last election when voters in four solidly Republican states passed minimum wage increases,” Pastor said. Nearly three-quarters of the country support raising the federal minimum wage to $12.50 an hour, with backing from 53 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats.

“There’s a tendency to think that anybody who is working full time shouldn’t be lodged below the poverty level,” Pastor said. “There’s also a tendency to think that there should be a fair wage and that there should be a mechanism for doing it besides the market.”

Change Grounded in Research

While the minimum wage is an increasingly popular tool to address stagnant wages, Pastor and his colleagues at USC Dornsife are interested in understanding other avenues to effectively overcome economic inequality.

Pastor directs PERE, a research center that focuses on issues of regional equity, social movement building and environmental justice. PERE’s goal is to move research from university halls to public policy by working with change agents on the ground to help improve communities.

The program partners with organizations to provide them with foundational research based on what Pastor calls the “new three Rs” — rigor, relevance and reach — central to making a case for action. Staff expertise includes data analysis, urban planning, racial equity, grassroots organizing and policy development.

“The standard role of academics is that we produce reports and data and expect people to pay attention. But the reality today is that you also need to have both a communications strategy and a sense of who moves policy,” said Pastor, who also directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at USC Dornsife.

PERE has done a lot of work looking at social-change organizations, trying to understand how they make change happen and how policy shifts as a result. That includes studying how regions can grow equitably so that all residents can share in economic prosperity.

PERE’s work is critical at a time when many people in the U.S. are having what Pastor refers to as “fact-free conversations.”

“They’re tethered by people’s beliefs and not tethered by what the data tell us,” Pastor explained.

PERE teamed up with national equity advocacy group PolicyLink to create the NEA. This powerful online resource provides the public with data on demographic change, racial inclusion and the economic benefits of equity for the largest 100 cities and 150 metro regions, as well as each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. as a whole.

“It’s something that people are utilizing to understand inequality in their region and then to make fact-based arguments about what it is we can do about it,” Pastor said.

Imagine Your Future Self

Vermont Boulevard in L.A.’s Koreatown is lined with strip malls crowded with signs in English, Korean and Spanish offering payday loans, discount shoes, Korean barbeque, prepaid mobile phones and auto body services. Palm trees silhouette the skyline.

Here, more than 124,000 people live in 2.7 square miles. With 42,000 plus people per square mile, Koreatown is among the highest density regions in Los Angeles, made up mainly of Latinos and Asians. The median household income in Koreatown is $30,558 — low compared to other neighborhoods in L.A.

Born in Mexico, Rodriguez moved to L.A. when she was one. She grew up in Koreatown, where she and her family still live. “It’s pretty crowded with four of us in a one-bedroom apartment,” she said. “But there are way bigger families that are also living in the same place. Many of us are not privileged to have our own bedroom or a backyard.”

Rodriguez described her neighborhood as primarily Hispanic and a tight community.

“I know my neighbors pretty well,” she said. “We have a lot of trust.”

But there are challenges that come along with living in an urban area with high levels of poverty.

“I won’t deny it, there’s violence, there are gangs,” said Rodriguez. “It all depends on who you choose to hang around with and who you choose to make your friends.”

To support herself, Rodriguez now works as a barista at a local branch of a well-known coffeehouse where she earns minimum wage. She pitches in a portion of her paycheck for her family’s finances but had to cut down her contribution when California raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2014. Her employer no longer offered full-time hours. Now, she works three days a week and takes home about $500 per month after taxes — half of what she was making before.

“I’m out there looking for another job until I find something secure,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the constant struggle for entry-level jobs.”

Rodriguez sees education as her ticket to earning a better living. “My brother is in high school and I always tell him to study,” she said.

In June, Rodriguez earned two associate degrees from Los Angeles Trade-Technical College — one in culinary arts and another in restaurant management. She didn’t celebrate the achievement because it is not her ultimate goal. She sees earning the degrees as a stepping-stone that will help her strive for “something bigger” — a way to get a higher-paying job to put herself through a four-year college.

“I want to go to USC and study political science,” said Rodriguez. “I’ve always wanted to work as a city attorney, or maybe work for Congress.”

Portrait Right

Inequities in income and wealth distribution have created a deep divide in the United States. Currently, the top 20 percent of households own more than 84 percent of the wealth while the bottom 40 percent own just 0.3 percent of the wealth.

Imagining your future self is a key to unlocking your full potential, particularly when social and economic disparities challenge achievement, according to Daphna Oyserman

“People who have less money to begin with, people whose mother did not go to college, people who are Latino, African American or American Indian, are less likely to finish high school, go to college and complete college,” said Oyserman, Dean’s Professor of Psychology and co-director of the Mind and Society Center at USC Dornsife.

So how can children who grow up with these challenges overcome them?

Oyserman, who holds a joint appointment with the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, developed identity-based motivation theory to understand when and how people’s images of what is possible for them in the future can be leveraged so that they will persist in spite of difficulties they encounter in their lives. 

According to identity-based motivation theory, people use their identities to make sense of their experiences and assume that who they are — the identities they have — is stable. Yet, which identities come to mind — what these identities are taken to imply for action, and hence, how experienced difficulties should be interpreted — is highly context-sensitive. One area of Oyserman’s research focuses on how students can leverage their motivation to overcome inequalities and achieve goals such as attending and graduating from college.

School-to-Jobs is an intervention that Oyserman created to help disadvantaged students based on three basic objectives: make students feel like their future goals are connected to the present; help them understand that when something is difficult it means that it’s important; and let them know they can take actions now to work toward their final goals.

Oyserman launched School-to-Jobs in middle schools in Detroit. In 12 biweekly sessions held during homeroom periods, students participated in activities in which they created templates for fulfilling their goals. They were guided to form a mental image of adulthood, identify concrete steps to help achieve their goals and address their concerns for reaching goals. A randomly assigned control group did not participate in School-to-Jobs. Prior to the intervention, the groups did not differ on any measure.

For two years, Oyserman and her colleagues tracked the students’ progress.

The researchers found that those who took part in School-to-Jobs got better grades, were less likely to have unexcused absences, saw their standardized test scores rise, and reported that they spent more time on homework.

“All of those changes were more positive than they were for the kids who were in the control group, for whom things got worse over time,” Oyserman explained.

Now Oyserman is implementing School-to-Jobs in middle schools in Chicago, and with funding from the Institute for Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, she is training teachers to train other teachers to run the program. She is also working with the country of Singapore to implement the program nationally. Her book Pathways to Success Through Identity-Based Motivation (Oxford University Press, 2015) is being used in school districts and community colleges. She is collaborating with groups running after-school programs to adapt the program to their own settings.

“The goal is really to help kids get to what you might call the ‘American Dream’ — finish school in a position to get higher education and lead more stable and productive lives,” Oyserman said.

“At the most proximal level, this is an amazingly cost-effective way of improving society,” she said.

Mobilizing Kids for Healthy Living

Behind the apartment where Rodriguez lives is a tiny oasis, the Francis Avenue Community Garden. The space was once an empty lot. Neighbors cleaned it up and turned it into a garden and meeting place.

In densely populated Koreatown, women and men from the surrounding neighborhood grow corn, tomatoes, chiles, squash, beans, bananas and mangoes in raised beds. The community holds events there, too, such as planting workshops, weddings and music and crafting classes for kids.

“It’s for the community, a place where kids can be outside and not be behind four walls,” said Rodriguez. “You find some relief.” Her mother grows vegetables that she uses to  prepare family meals. The harvest helps supplement the groceries purchased from a nearby discount supermarket, which the family finds more affordable and accessible than other options in the neighborhood.

But not all similarly burdened neighborhoods are as lucky to have such a garden where they can supplement their diets with nutritious produce. Low-income communities of color, much more than affluent areas, must contend with “food swamps” and “food deserts” — meaning they have a disproportionately high number of fast-food outlets (“swamps”) and very few options for healthy food (“deserts”). Research shows they also experience higher incidences of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Portrait Right

For every dollar that an average U.S. worker earns, a CEO makes $354. If the worker is a minority, the gap is even wider.

Donna Spruijt-Metz understands these challenges. Her work at USC Dornsife focuses on promoting healthy habits in children who are faced with an uphill battle in the fight to eat nutritiously. In particular, she studies obesity prevention and treatment in minority children.

Diet, physical activity, sleep and stress are the four factors that influence obesity, and minority populations have extra challenges surrounding all of these areas, said Spruijt-Metz, professor (research) of psychology.

“In some of the interventions that we’ve done, we’ve taken people grocery shopping in their communities to help them learn how to shop in a more healthy way within their budgets,” she said. “That can be really tricky because there are often not a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables available.”

Between waning activity levels, stress from any number of factors such as food insecurity or acculturation, as well as challenges getting a good night’s sleep, you’ve got a recipe for poor nutrition.

Spruijt-Metz is using mobile technologies in her lab at USC Dornsife and in the field to understand the biological, behavioral, social and environmental causes of childhood obesity.

With 88 percent of American teens age 13 to 17 having access to a mobile phone, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, smartphones are a perfect way for her to access research subjects.

“My work now is almost entirely in mobile-health technologies — it’s a great way to reach the hard-to-reach because they have access to mobile phones, often smart phones,” said Spruijt-Metz, who directs the USC mHealth Collaboratory in the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research. The collaboratory brings together researchers to advance research in health and well-being through mobile strategies.

In one intervention called the KNOWME Networks, led by Spruijt-Metz in collaboration with several colleagues in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, a small group of Hispanic youth wore nonintrusive monitors that collected data on their physical activity over a period of about three days. The data were analyzed using a combination of agile analyses on the phone and on a secure server, and used to determine in real time how long children were sedentary after school or during the weekend. Members of the Spruijt-Metz lab then used text messaging when the children were sedentary for more than two hours to encourage them to get moving.

The children increased their activity by a mean of 171 minutes in a weekend.

“That’s clinically significant,” Spruijt-Metz said. While the original study was small, she is planning to scale the project up in the near future.

Virtual Sprouts is another intervention that Spruijt-Metz and an interdisciplinary team of researchers have developed to teach children and families how they can grow vegetables and fruits in whatever space they might have available — backyards, windowsills, balconies or even living rooms.

The interactive multimedia gardening game allows players to plant crops, tend to them, harvest them and then prepare them as part of a healthy meal.

Virtual Sprouts is an offshoot of L.A. Sprouts, a program started by former USC researcher Jamie Davis that puts edible gardens in schools around the city. The Virtual Sprouts game, which can be played on an iPhone or iPad, provides an alternative to living gardens, which are not always sustainable in low-income neighborhoods because they require funding and constant maintenance.

Virtual Sprouts was pilot tested in two schools last year with promising results. This fall, Virtual Sprouts will be tested in two clinics in the L.A. area.

“I’m very excited,” Spruijt-Metz said. In the future, she noted, she hopes to make the game publicly available.

L.A. — the U.S. in Fast-Forward

If the effort to lessen inequalities in the U.S. must begin somewhere, L.A. is a perfect city to study in terms of determining what kinds of progress can be made.

The city is making huge strides to revitalize its downtown, reclaim its transit system and create new mechanisms to collaborate with its immigrant and undocumented populations.

“And L.A. — both the city and the county — is now trying to bring up the bottom of the labor market through minimum wage legislation and coupling that with support to make sure that business grows, as well,” Pastor said. “All of that says that L.A. is on the cutting edge of policy experiments to deal with the problems of inequality, the challenges of demographic change and the concerns of those who are being left behind.” The conversation is underway.

“Indeed, a key part of PERE and CSII’s work is to bridge research-driven conversations among dynamic, diverse stakeholders, including leaders from across sectors such as the Los Angeles Business Council and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce,” Pastor said.

“So for us to be researchers in the midst of all of this, at a university situated in the heart of downtown L.A., it’s the most exciting and opportunity-filled time folks like us could be in. Together with the other great universities that are here, we can contribute to the future of Los Angeles and through that the future of California, the future of urban America and the future of the United States. This is a tremendous laboratory.”

Rodriguez is also hopeful.

She shares her story as a minimum-wage worker to help articulate the larger experience of other minimum-wage workers. She’s a member of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, whose mission is to empower low-wage immigrant workers. She emceed the group’s rally at the 2014 International Workers’ Day march, and also spoke about her own experiences.

“I talk about myself and my experiences. I also talk about other people. There are thousands of people who are too shy to share their story,” Rodriguez said. “I am the voice of those people.”

Her big-picture goal is to make a difference in her community by helping to level the playing field so that everyone has a fair chance to succeed.

“It’s not just about making money,” she said. “It’s about being as educated as everyone else. Being able to take a seat at the table where we are all speaking at the same level. It’s about achieving the American Dream.” 

Learn about another proposed solution for overcoming inequalities and stimulating economic growth.

Illustrations by Jim Tsinganos for USC Dornsife Magazine

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine‘s Fall 2015-Winter 2016 issue >>