Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality

2021 Blueprint of Federal Social Policy Priorities: Recommendations to the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress

Grand challenges for social work

Even before COVID-19, with record low rates of unemployment, there were clouds on the horizon: an unsustainable federal budget, slowing overall economic growth and increasing wealth and income inequality.

A persistent cycle of economic insecurity has ensnared working Americans for decades as they encounter the unpredictable events of social life and the economic risk inherent in our economy. Household economic insecurity is related to income volatility and the risk of downward mobility into poverty. Adverse events such as unemployment, family dissolution, or a health crisis commonly trigger income losses. Pre-COVID, 40 percent of adults, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money (Bhutta et al., 2020).

Economic trends indicate widening economic injustice across the board, but it affects African Americans, Hispanic Americans and American Indian/Alaska Natives far worse than other racial groups. There are persistent, racialized wealth disparities. Black and Hispanic families have considerably less wealth than White families. Black families' median and mean wealth is less than 15 percent that of White families, at $24,100 and $142,500, respectively. Hispanic families' median and mean wealth is $36,100 and $165,500, respectively (Bhutta, Chang, Dettling, and Hsu, 2020).

Although women constitute 51 percent of the population of the United States, they experience continuing disparate treatment and a widening gender gap in earnings compared to their male counterparts. Household income varies dramatically and women and women-headed households are more likely to live in poverty. Violence against women is an ongoing challenge that can trigger income and food insecurity for women and their children. 

Children continue to be the poorest age group in America. Overall, nearly 1 in 6 children lived in poverty in 2018. Children of color fare the worst, with 30 percent of Black children, almost 30 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native children and 25 percent of Hispanic children living in poverty, compared with 8 percent of white children (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020). Poor children are more likely to have poor academic achievement, drop out of high school and later become unemployed, experience economic hardship and be involved in the criminal justice system (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020). 

Nearly 10 percent of adults 65 years and older live in poverty (Semega, Kollar, Shrider, & Creamer, 2020), and women—especially women of color—experience even higher rates of poverty than do men (Christ & Gronniger, 2018). However, the Elder Index™ reveals that half of older people who live alone and nearly one-quarter of two-older-adult households experience economic insecurity (Mutchler, Li, & Velasco Roldán, 2019), with even greater rates of economic insecurity among older people who are Asian, Black, and Latino (Mutchler, Velasco Roldán, & Li, 2020). Moreover, food insecurity is a challenge for more than 7 percent of adults 60 years and older and for nearly 11 percent of adults ages 50 through 59 (Ziliak & Gundersen, 2020a, 2020b). Many older adults struggle with increasing housing and health care costs, inadequate nutrition, lack of access to transportation, diminished savings, and job loss. For most older adults, one major adverse life event can have ruinous effects.

Social Security mitigates poverty more than any other social program in the United States: In 2018, Social Security reduced poverty among adults 65 years and older by about 28 percent; among adults 18 through 64 years of age, by about 11 percent; and among children younger than 18, by about 16 percent (Romig, 2020). Without Social Security, nearly 40 percent of older adults, 15 percent of young and middle-aged adults, and 20 percent of children would live in poverty (Romig, 2020). Across age groups, exclusion of Social Security from household income would a disproportionate impact on women and people of color (Romig, 2020). These numbers are even higher when the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure is applied (Romig, 2020; U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). 

NASW calls on national leaders to:

  • Implement a multifaceted approach to tackling poverty and creating economic stability that includes a review by each federal agency of the steps necessary to end poverty including investment in anti-poverty programs and policies.
  • Include funds for expanding eligibility for SNAP benefits and rescind recent or pending SNAP regulations that would time limit, terminate, or weaken benefits.
  • Increase the number of positions available through national service programs such as AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, and conservation corps.
  • Pass legislation that immediately raises the national minimum wage to $15.00 per hour.
  • Incentivize and support the development of minority-owned businesses.
  • Strengthen Social Security by increasing survivor benefits for widowed spouses, benefits for retirees who have been collecting Social Security for 20 years or more, and SSI benefits, as well as by instituting credits for family caregivers and adopting the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E) in calculating Social Security’s annual cost-of-living allowance.
  • Mitigate the damage done by Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., by supporting enactment of legislation to restore the standard of proof in age discrimination cases to the pre-2009 level, to treat age discrimination with the same severity as other forms of employment discrimination, and to amend the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Title VII retaliation provision within the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Provide increased funding for the Senior Community Service Employment Program.
  • Reform the hiring process across employment settings to prevent age discrimination, such as by enacting the Protect Older Job Applicants Act (H.R. 8381 in the 116th Congress).
  • Restore the fiduciary rule as it was originally implemented by the Obama Administration.
  • Institute credits toward Social Security for people who must leave the paid workforce to care for a family member with an illness, disability, or injury.
  • Protect borrowers from predatory lenders by reversing deregulation of payday lenders and introducing protections such as a cap on interest rates, restrictions on abusive debt collectors, protections against financial scams, and expanded debt relief.
  • Enact the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act (H.R. 1185/S. 463) to create a national paid family and medical leave insurance program.
  • Implement a comprehensive tax strategy including higher top marginal income tax rates, higher taxes on estates or inheritance, and/or a direct tax on wealth.
  • Modify the tax codes to ensure that big businesses pay a reasonable, equitable tax rate on their annual revenues. Eliminate tax loopholes that allow major multi-national businesses to pay zero taxes or even receive a tax refund. Increase the minimum amount of earnings that are exempt from taxes.
  • Shift federal tax subsidies toward wealth-building programs for low-wealth people, particularly those of color.
  • Provide low or no cost community college and increased access to public universities.
  • Improve and expand the nation’s digital infrastructure to facilitate communication and service access for all, especially for students, low-income individuals, Indigenous communities and rural areas.
  • Close the gender pay gap.