By any metric, the United States has one of the highest rates of income inequality of any developed country in the world. Take, for example, Walt Disney Co., where the CEO earned a $43.7 million salary in 2014, but the median worker took home $19,530. But while this problem has existed as far back as 1890, when Sen. John Sherman, the author of the antitrust act, recognized it as the biggest threat to social order, the ratio of income inequality has not been as large as it is today since the Great Depression.

Perhaps more significantly, with income inequality comes opportunity inequality as individuals all across the socio-economic spectrum struggle to meet basic needs and fall farther and farther behind in pursuit of their version of the American dream. Just this month, fast food workers, many of whom are supporting families, demonstrated across the country in support of a meager $15 per hour wage.


How did we get here? While, outside events beyond our control, like wars and recession, played a role, so did laws that favor the accumulation of wealth. For example, the failed policy of lowering the individual tax rate from 70 percent to 35 percent that began under President Ronald Reagan to stimulate growth (so-called "trickle down economics'), and the lowered tax rate on capital gains where the wealthy derive most of their income, are among the reasons cited by economists. The deregulation of the financial industry during the Clinton era, which resulted in the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, is another. And a system in which only those with the financial wherewithal to afford $50,000-a-year college tuitions for an education that is no longer a guarantee of employment is yet another.

Income inequality should be at the forefront of our thinking today because of the effect it has on all aspects of our society. As noted by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the widening gap between the wealthiest in our country and the poor impacts levels of crime and poverty, our health, family dysfunction and the achievement of higher education. Further, income inequality is eviscerating the middle class, which throughout the history of our nation has been the engine that has driven the train of economic development and prosperity. But as income and opportunity inequality have increased, there has been less incentive to correct this problem because the wealthy, who have the greatest access to the political process, are incentivized to preserve the status quo in order to maintain, and even increase, their individual wealth.

What can we do to stop this trend? Here are a few ideas worth considering offered by economists and other experts:

First, we must make a substantial investment in education. Students are graduating from high school and college at an abysmal rate while being saddled with crushing loans they will never be able to repay. We need to both improve the quality of the education we provide all our children while at the same time creating a more level playing field so that everyone, no matter what their economic circumstance, can go to college.

Second, we must create jobs, and if necessary, make government the employer of last resort. Employment is the principal route for individuals and their families to escape poverty and for societies to reduce levels of inequality.

Third, we need to invest in small businesses. While there may have been a need to pump billions of dollars into failed financial institutions in order to keep our economy afloat, a small investment in the corner grocery store, restaurant or home improvement business not only creates jobs at a local level but also improves the stability and safety of the neighborhood as a whole.

Fourth, we need to move to a progressive tax structure that fairly taxes income earned on capital and investments, which is currently taxed at a rate substantially less than the tax rate on salaries and wages. A more equitable tax system in which those at the top do not pay taxes on a lower percentage of their income than those who are much poorer instills both greater trust in government and greater productivity.

The idea is not to create a utilitarian utopia designed to provide "handouts" to those less fortunate or to pit the haves against the have-nots in a class war. Instead, it is a recognition that government is the formal institution through which we act together, collectively, to solve the nation's problems. The proposals suggested here are designed to provide a pathway to economic stability in which government provides its citizens with the tools to succeed in life and support themselves and their families in a meaningful and fulfilling way.

It is time for our elected officials to roll up their sleeves and work for solutions that benefit all of our citizens and not be beholden to only the needs of their largest campaign donors. We must think of government investment as more than just how we improve infrastructure, roads or bridges, but also the investment in human capital, our most precious commodity. Our children' futures and the future of our society depend on it.

Gregg Bernstein is a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP and a former Baltimore City state's attorney. His email is gbernstein@zuckerman.com.