The national discussion on income inequality reached campus Thursday afternoon as Rebecca Blank, chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Madison, gave her interpretation of the disparity of opportunity in the United States.
Before her role as chancellor at Wisconsin, Blank served as dean and professor of public policy and economics in the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy from 1998 to 2008 and as Deputy Secretary and Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
She spoke in Rackham Auditorium to a crowd of Public Policy undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and community members. Blank opened her lecture by challenging common perceptions about American opportunity in the United States.
“New starts may be hard, but not impossible,” Blank said. “Opportunity for those at the very bottom may be very limited, hard work may not lead to economic advancement and it turns out, not everyone can be president or CEO.”
She discussed how, in the developing world competition with other countries, technological advances and the entrance of women into the workforce all have contributed to the rising inequality. However, she said because these factors have also played a positive role in economic advancement, eliminating them would not reduce inequality.
“Many of the causes of rising inequality are not clearly negative,” she said. “In fact, not just the people in this room, but many lower- and middle-income families as well, have benefitted enormously from the very forces that also caused some of this rising inequality.”
Effects of inequality such as residential segregation by income, family composition and disparities in enrichment expenditures on children were also discussed.
While she suggested legislative solutions that would be effective — such as wealth redistribution and better education funding — Blank was pessimistic about any short-term progress, pointing to the political gridlock in Washington.
Public Policy graduate student Mo Torres said he attended the event because inequality is one of the biggest policy issues the United States is currently facing.
“At the University, we talk about how after we graduate we’ll have all of these opportunities,” Torres said. “We forget that a lot of people don’t have the opportunities that, as students, we’ve had. If we don’t care about the people that are not at the University, then the people who are in power won’t do a whole lot to make the world more equal.”
Public Policy graduate student Gillean Kitchen said inequality is an issue that all people face but not everyone is willing to talk about.
“I think inequality has an impact on the overall economy, on the opportunities that we have available to us and the opportunities that will be available to our future kids, and if we don’t care about it nobody else is going to,” Kitchen said. “We’re potentially future leaders, so if we truly take that to heart this is one of the biggest challenges facing our nation today.“
The inequality discussion will continue this week at the Public Policy School and the National Poverty Center Friday with an academic conference in honor of The Research and Training Program on Poverty and Public Policy.