Recently, Sociology Professor Manuel Pastor came to Seattle to talk about growth and equity. Pastor is a well-known professor from USC whose work focuses on “the economic, environmental and social conditions facing low-income urban communities – and the social movements seeking to change those realities.” He was brought to Seattle by the City’s Office of Planning and Civil Rights, which is working to assure that Seattle’s land-use is fair and just.
The event kicked off by Pastor framing Seattle’s rapid construction and increasing density as a result of increasing economic growth. Pastor then spent 25 minutes or so talking about racial disparity and the rise of the majority minority city—a city in which one or more racial and/or ethnic minorities make up a majority of the local population. His slides spoke volumes about our changing community and the need to shift focus.
But then Pastor took a strange turn.
For some reason, Pastor felt a need to defend all this attention to racial and income disparity. He justified it not because data showed that it is unfair and unjust, or that all people should have equitable opportunities.
Instead, Pastor chose to emphasize inequity as important because it is “bad for economic growth.”
This was not a surprise. The event was framed with language from Pastor’s book Growing Together, a book about how inequality stunts economic growth. It is a frame emphasized prominently by the think tank PolicyLink, under the banner “equity is the superior growth model.”
Pastor and PolicyLink are taking a page from what has been a standard approach for a long time. Let’s hitch ourselves to the popular idea of a bigger economy. And if the economic pie grows, that means we’ll get a bigger piece, right?
The facts show that today in a country like the United States, economic growth no longer delivers the goods (i.e., other indicators of progress such as equality, personal income and savings, as well as retirement security). It was up on the screen when Pastor showed a chart of the dive in wealth among low-income individuals at the same time as climbing wealth at the top. We need to stop closing our eyes and notice these trends aren’t unrelated.
Economic growth today comes from privatization and enclosure of our time and common goods, moving things that were outside the market, like child care or forests, into the market and extracting value from them (daycare over maternity leave or a forest becoming a carbon credit). In a world where we’re serious about equity, where we refuse to sacrifice people or the planet, we can’t keep depending on growth.
Worse than not being effective, this strategy reinforces the dominant frame that what we should care about isn’t people, but the economy. Implicitly Pastor and his collaborators argue that we, especially those of us with a low income as well as people of color, are valued based on our service to the economy, not for our intrinsic worth as humans and our right to an equitable opportunity to thrive.
It’s an argument made by many, including Seattle philanthropist Nick Hanauer who argues that we need to address economic inequality to save capitalism. Well Nick and Manuel, we aren’t buying it. We know what you really care about is people, community, and fairness, so why not just say it and try to actually shift the conversation?
It’s not like it has been effective. The environmental movement has used this strategy widely and rarely successfully. Solving climate change will help economic growth pleads the UK’s Lord Stern. But polls show Americans don’t buy it. In its place we can have something much stronger, a moral and values based conversation, led by leaders like Pope Francis, Alicia Garza, or Bernie Sanders who aren’t afraid to mince words.
At the end of his presentation Pastor challenged the audience to have a courageous conversation about equity. He asked us to speak to our aspirations, not our anxiety. He said that equity and inclusion are fundamental, not add-ons. He’s right, we do need courageous conversations, we do need to speak to our aspirations, and equity should be central. But by couching equity as a means to an end, and playing into the preservation of the economic growth frame, he modeled just the opposite.