by Jason Frerichs
There is a contentious debate on the left about economic justice vs identity politics. One side believes that economic issues are the most pressing of the day and that they must be front and center. The other side believes that fighting against sexism, homophobia, structural racism, transphobia, etc. should be front center. What neither side seems to grasp is that they both have a piece of the truth. This is really an argument of which came first, the chicken or the egg? It is my contention that economic justice and social justice are so intertwined that they are not separate issues as it would be impossible to separate them. Dr. Martin Luther King had the following to say about this issue, “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
The first step towards ending any type of inequality is economic justice. Racism will not be conquered until more people of color have the ability to obtain good paying jobs, good schools, and affordable health and child care. If you want to solve any type of poverty-related issue, you must first offer opportunities to the communities facing those issues. How do we get people off welfare? Offer a $15/hr minimum wage or even better, a basic guaranteed income. Offer them universal coverage for their healthcare so they can actually use their benefits when they get sick. Offer them free tuition at public colleges and universities so they have the opportunity to train for a career.
Recently some Democrats have accused those who are angry over Heath Mello’s record on reproductive rights of requiring a purity test in order to run for office. Maybe they’re right but this is a line in the sand we must draw. Limiting a woman’s right to choose is both a social and an economic issue. According to the National Campaign on Teen Pregnancy, 34% of teen mothers do not earn a high school diploma. Only 2% go on to earn a college degree. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, it is estimated that over the course of his or her lifetime, a single high school dropout costs the nation approximately $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity. Even in today’s economy, those with college degrees will generally earn more over their lifetime than those without a degree.
According to the National Institute of Health, people who experience racism have a greater rate of illness than those who do not. Minority groups have higher rates of infant mortality, cancer, and heart disease. The Kaiser Family Foundation states that minorities are more likely to be uninsured than white people. This has a huge economic impact. People without insurance tend to delay care until what started out as a minor issue, turns into a full-blown health crisis. The cost of uninsured ER or clinic visits are transferred to those people who do have health insurance. According to a study done by Johns Hopkins University titled The Business Case for Racial Equality, the income gap due to racism costs the U.S. $1.9 trillion dollars per year. Not only is income equality the moral position to pursue, it’s also the economically advantageous position to pursue.
Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters suffer a great deal of economic inequality due to homophobia and transphobia. According to various studies done in the U.S., the U.K., and Thailand, 50% to 75% of LBGTQ kids are bullied at school. They often cut class just to avoid the harassment. This severely impacts their economic future and limits their earning potential as they age. It’s estimated that as many as 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. A U.S. study found that gay and lesbian youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, and transgender youth are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. The World Bank estimates that discrimination towards the LGBTQ community can potentially cost a country $32 billion a year in economic output.
It’s clear that there is a very strong argument to be made that all social justice issues are also economic issues. It is both the morally and economically prudent to end discrimination of all types. We cannot and should not try to separate economic justice and social justice. Those on the left must fight forcefully against discrimination and demand economic justice for all Americans. The economic elite likes to divide us up into different categories and try to pit us against each other. We must say enough is enough.
Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Progressive Caucus