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The Root Causes of Social Inequality and How Policy Leaders Can Change the Narrative

August 9, 2019 10:22 AM

By Kathryn Walsh

At the closing plenary of the Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPAM) International Conference, the speakers engaged in passionate discourse about the spread of social inequality among and within countries.  

They echoed the call to action emphasized throughout the conference—that researchers simply must do more to ensure that their work is translated into action and properly highlights the structural influences of race and class. Although the speakers agreed that addressing inequality is not easy, they shared their reflections on how public policy researchers and practitioners can do better:

1.Change the false narrative crafted by the wealthy elite. 

Dr. Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist and co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that the wealthy elite push the ill-informed narrative that government is not part of the solution, but rather the problem itself. In her words, the inequality in the United States is “vast and extremely durable… it is a viscous cycle in which wealth buys political power.” Dr. Allegretto said that although she is proud of her work to raise the minimum wage in the U.S., she recognizes that it is somewhat of a temporary solution that does not fully address the depth of structural inequity. To truly make a difference in the U.S., she believes that we must take money out of politics and that the low-income, working class citizens must unionize to form one unified voice.  

2. Identify and explore the root causes of inequality.

Dr. Joan Benach, director of the Health Inequalities Research Group and professor at the Pompeu Fabra University, stated that current research is too fragmented, isolated and not based on theory. To create real change, he believes that researchers and policymakers must go deeper in their analyses of inequality to understand the root causes including colonialism, racism, sexism and exploitation. Similarly, Dr. Vicente Navarro, a recognized political scientist and professor at Johns Hopkins University and Pompeu Fabre University, argued that progressives have failed to appeal to the working class and ultimately contributed to their frustration. He stated that this has led to the recent rise in nationalism and power of the extreme right. Dr. Navarro believes that researchers must emphasize in their work how class impacts every facet of our society and contributes to systemic inequality. 

3. Adopt successful strategies for lasting policy change.

Dr. Keshia Pollack Porter, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, spoke to her recent commentary in Public Health Reports on how informed policy can mitigate wide ranging public health issues. Dr. Pollack Porter emphasized four main principles for effective policy: (1) utilizing the best available research to inform policy, (2) considering health equity in the beginning of policy formulation, (3) designing policy with implementation in mind, and (4) building coalitions of diverse stakeholders that meet regularly on evidence-based policy formulation.



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