Nation & World

Inequality and justice, why, where, when, who

4 min read

“Universities are inequality machines,” Christopher Jencks, Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said. “Combating inequality works only by leveling up … which often takes generations.”

Jencks was one of a panel of five participants in the symposium titled “Inequality and Justice in the 21st Century.”

Elizabeth Warren, Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, served as moderator and self-described agent provocateur. She subjected her distinguished colleagues, each “representing” a different School, to a sort of pop quiz.

She started by asking each panelist to identify the “most troubling” areas of inequality in his or her field.

Jerold S. Kayden, Frank Backus Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, said, “Location matters; space matters.” The troubling inequalities he cited were the location of poor people next to “environmental disasters,” exclusionary zoning that locks the poor out of outer suburbs, the cheek-by-jowl propinquity of the desperately poor and the very rich in major cities, the continuing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and shantytowns around the world.

Kayden also said, “It’s an odd thing to say, but democracy can sometimes be a force for inequality.” Decentralized democracy, in the form of local community zoning boards, is behind that exclusionary zoning. And this phenomenon has its counterparts, he suggested, in the developing world as well.

Jencks identified the way people’s incomes seem to be so largely influenced by those of their parents as a troubling inequality for him. He also called the “constant debate” in the United States over whether the focus should be on equality of opportunity or equality of outcome “silly” because “every set of outcomes that are unequal is the starting point for another set of opportunities. … You can’t separate these two.”

He added, “We have a love/hate relationship with inequality. We need it, to motivate people.”

Bridget Terry Long, associate professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has focused in her academic work on access to higher education. It has now become “absolutely key to functioning in this world” with a middle-class standard of living, she said. She added that she was troubled by unequal access to informational resources that students need to get “beyond community colleges.”

Paul Farmer, Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Medical Anthropology of Harvard Medical School, cited different rates of maternal mortality as a troubling index of inequality. He stressed that disparities are often as much within countries as between them. The urban areas of Haiti, for instance, have rates of Caesarean sections comparable to those of the Longwood Medical Area of Boston.

But, he added, “Let me just signal as the most troubling thing — the frantic scramble of policymakers to explain away the causes of these inequalities and the effort to erase how these inequalities were created in the first place.”

Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor, identified inequality of access to health care and education as prime points of concern. He noted that scholars have been worrying about health care access for centuries — in China and India, as far back as the fifth century.

However broad the conversation was, at some points, at least, it got very concrete — perhaps literally.

In response to a question from the audience about what the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences could do to help ease inequality, Farmer had a very specific answer: “We’ve been trying for about 10 years to get people to help us build a bridge so that our ambulances don’t get washed away on the way to our clinic in Haiti.

“We don’t just want a plan. We want them to go and raise the money and build the damn bridge!”