The Simplest Solution to Fixing Wealth Inequality
Capitalism has benefitted a few people a lot in recent years. How can we help the rest?
As a reader of Worth, you’re probably in the one percent. Or maybe the 10 percent. Or maybe you’re in the top 20 percent of earners, but you aspire to join the 1 percent. Here’s one thing you have in common: In any of those scenarios, chances are that you make most of your money in the stock market, real estate and other forms of investment. Your salaried income is just the beginning.
Over the last decade, shareholders like you and me have done very well with the stock market; the Dow Jones has risen from about 8,500 in June 2009—granted, a low point due to the financial crisis, but then you probably bought stocks to take advantage of the bargain shopping—to about 26,000 now. In other words, during a time span when most financial advisors will tell you that your assets should double, your assets have almost tripled.
Yet that same success has led to vast inequities in America, as the richest 10 percent of Americans own 84 percent of the stock and nearly half of Americans don’t own any at all. While the prices of stocks have soared since 2000, average median household income has decreased by 18 percent. And 46 percent of Americans say they do not have $400 to cover an emergency expense.
Most Americans must rely solely on their labor to get by. Yet 48 percent of Americans are expected to be in low-wage jobs by 2020, up from 24 percent in 2009. In his 2016 book Raising the Floor, Columbia University professor Andy Stern predicted that two-thirds of new jobs created by 2020 will be low-wage.
Compounding this trend towards low-wage labor, 34 percent of the total U.S. workforce, approximately 53 million people, is freelance today. Stern predicts that by 2020 over 50 percent, or about 82 million people of U.S. workforce, may be “contingent” workers who have no job security and no benefits. These temporary workers have to fund their own retirement, medical care, family leave and vacation. Their situation is precarious: Temporary workers earn 18 percent less than non-temporary workers and are twice as likely to live in poverty and rely on social safety nets, according to Miranda Dietz, a researcher at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.
Put simply, there has been a major concentration of wealth over the last 20 years. And those of us who are benefiting from the existing system—and that includes me and my retirement portfolio—need to do something about that. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s not fair, and Americans believe in fairness. For another, it’s not healthy for society, and we see that in the polarization, opioid crisis, and lack of financial resiliency felt keenly by most American families. And lastly, it’s not healthy for capitalism, as someone needs to buy the goods and services from the companies that bring us those nice returns.
So…what to do? If you are in corporate leadership, follow the Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman’s lead and give all workers the same high level benefits. Invest in your people, pay them well, stop outsourcing or offshoring them. Pay a living wage or better. This not utopian; it is good business. Starbucks invests in its front line retail employees and it has a turnover rate of 65 percent versus the 150 percent that is average in the sector (for every 20 people you need, you have to hire 30)—meaning lower costs for recruitment and training and higher productivity.
As a personal investor, invest in companies that treat their employees fairly. Just Capital rates companies that perform well on those topics. They have found that “just” companies pay their median U.S. worker 7 percent more, employ 2.7 times as many U.S. workers, create U.S. jobs at a 26 percent greater rate, and also earn a 3 percent higher 5-year average return on equity.
ESG (environmental, social and governance) data providers such as MSCI and Sustainalytics provide ratings for investors and asset managers on these topics. And certain funds focus on labor: Parnassus Endeavor Fund, a primarily large cap fund that picks companies based on positive workplace attributes, has been named No. 1 among all large-cap growth stock funds over every long-term period measured by research firm Morningstar, from one year to 10 years, and has delivered annualized returns of 12.2 percent, compared with just 8.5 percent for the S&P 500.
Of course, you can also help through philanthropy, and that is always welcome and necessary. That said, the biggest impact will come from improving the system—not trying to clean up after it.