Sam Pizzegati writes a post in the Institute for Policy Studies website Too Much [ http://toomuchonline.org/rich-poor-gap-be-gone/ ] that the London borough of Islington, population 200,000, noticing the extreme gaps between high and low incomes in Britain and the U.S., tried to do something about it by setting up a Fairness Commission. Last July a newly elected borough council majority faced austerity budgets imposed by the Conservative Parliament and, urged to replace social spending with volunteerism, thought of legitimizing volunteerism by also imposing “fairness.” To them, that meant confronting inequality head-on. “Fairness” would require an Islington “with less income inequality.”
This insight led to a series of actions and possibilities:
- The borough could take the lead in re-structuring its own salary scale: it would “level down the top” so that a new borough manager would be hired at a significantly lower salary than his predecessor.
- It could also “level up the bottom”: lowest paid workers would get a “living wage” of at least $3.50 an hour more than the UK official minimum.
- Having set an example, the council would also ask private employers to address inequality, first by making public their own salary scales. “Employers that keep their top-bottom pay differential within 20 to 1 – plus pay at least a “living wage” would earn a “Fair Islington” designation they could display publicly.
Pizzegati reports that other localities have begun to follow Islington’s lead, with Liverpool and York also establishing Fairness Commissions. Islington’s Commission co-chair sees these as part of a “campaign for greater equality that will ‘have to involve the whole country and be sustained for ten or twenty years.”
Islington’s initiative is reminiscent of a time that U.S. cities confronted inequality. In Hartford, CT, populist city council leader Nick Carbone sued suburban towns in the 1970s over their reluctance to allow low cost housing construction, and many cities passed rent control laws. In the 1980s these sentiments continued in some places, perhaps in more sophisticated ways. In Boston, after rent control was rolled back in the state legislature, mayor Raymond Flynn made affordable housing a priority, pushing through a “linkage” rule that tapped downtown real estate development for an affordable housing trust fund and paving the way for other measures. In Chicago Harold Washington pursued a neighborhood based local economic policy that focused on saving industrial jobs with the aim of buttressing working class incomes. Burlington VT used other devices to stabilize housing prices for low and middle income families – as much as twenty percent of the housing stock.
These precedents raise the possibility that local level action – Fairness Commissions or other devices — could force cutbacks in the tide of inequality in the United States. Certainly there is a case for it. By the onset of the “great recession” in 2008, inequality had reached levels not seen in the United States since the 1920s. The biggest bite came out of the middle class, including the loss of factory jobs as the nations productive capacity went overseas through a wave of plant closings beginning in the 1970s.
And research suggests that inequality hurts not only those at the bottom of the income and wealth ladder, but also those at the top. Pizzigati mentions the influence of recent studies linking inequality to general presence of disease and other pathologies, to the point where Islington was persuaded it could make the “Fairness Commission” appeal not simply to the have-nots, but to the upper reaches of society.
This seems appealing, but it will not happen unless someone can figure out how to deal with the obstacles, caveats:
- None of these past initiatives in the United States have caught on generally and spread. They remain isolated in small cities like Burlington, or mainly caught in time, not lasting past the 1970s and 1980s. They are a counterpoint to the increasing inequalities in wealth and income in the United States generally.
- Majorities in Chicago and Boston seem to want to put the memories of Harold Washington and Ray Flynn, the confrontations of race and class associated with the tangible steps each took to deal with inequalities in those cities, behind them. Remarkable as Washington’s mayoralty was, there was practically no mention of it during the recent election of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. Inequality, generally, has been mentioned as infrequently as these icons of progressivism. Something basic is at work here.
- If Islington is able to sell “fairness” it must be counting on an ability to blunt the effects of the class warfare carried out by reactionary elements in the UK. In the U.S. these elements remain mobilized, much as public spirited officials and citizens may want to speak to the common good.
Still, one can take heart in what Islington has started. Islington may seem a far cry from events and possibilities in the United States, but perhaps something like their Fairness Commission” is worth a try. We will want to track it further, along with any echoes emerging in the United States.