Time for low-income affirmative action

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: There was a big poverty report out from the Census Bureau this week. We learned another 816,000 Americans fell into poverty last year, including nearly half a million children. And that, after you adjust for inflation, the median household income's now $2,000 less than it was at the beginning of the decade.

Those would seem to be pretty good talking points for Democrats as their convention in Denver moves into its third day today. This week we've asked some prominent policy types in the party to give us an issue the Dems should embrace, but haven't so far.

Commentator Robert Reich has one. He says Democrats have acknowledged the obstacles racial minorities face in hiring and education. Now, he says, they ought to look at the economically disadvantaged, too.


ROBERT REICH: Here's an idea Democrats probably won't endorse but should: Affirmative action based on family income.

The latest data from the Census tell us that inequality keeps growing. Most American families are now earning less in real terms than they did in 2000. More are in poverty. Meanwhile, the super-rich are taking home a larger slice of the economic pie than they have in 80 years.

At the same time, it's become harder for lower-income people to move upward. With wider inequality, the distance poor kids -- whatever their color -- has to climb to reach the upper-middle class is much longer. And the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs has removed many rungs in the middle of the income ladder, making that climb even harder.

In the new economy, education and connections mean more. Increasingly, lower-income people without adequate education and connections are competing for a smaller and smaller slice of the economic pie.

If there was ever a good time to offer affirmative action based on family income -- giving kids from lower income families extra consideration in college admissions, for example -- it's now.

Despite the fact that one of the great social achievements of the last quarter century is the emergence of a black middle and professional class, people of color are still over-represented among the poor and working class. The advantage of income-based affirmative action is it would address many of the same issues as race-based affirmative action, but it would also address the needs of low-income whites.

And income-based affirmative action would not create tensions between lower-income whites who don't benefit from race-based affirmative action and blacks who do. Demagogues would have a harder time using race to stoke the fires of economic resentment.

Finally, income-based affirmative action would lead to more economic diversity on our college campuses. And more economic diversity is a key to reversing America's trend toward widening inequality.

Income-based affirmative action makes sense. Democrats, as well as Republicans, should consider it.

RYSSDAL: Robert Reich is professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. You won't see him at the convention, but you ought to know he's endorsed Barack Obama.

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