Toxic Inequality by Thomas M. Shapiro – My 5 Lessons and Takeaways

Toxic“toxic” – poisonous: capable of causing death or serious debilitation.


Yesterday, I presented my synopsis of Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, & Threatens our Future by Thomas M. Shapiro. The gathering was hosted by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the Dallas Public Library, and CitySquare. It was another one of their “hard conversations” sessions. I would say that it was indeed hard, in the sense that the problems are large and the solutions are elusive. So, hard, yes – but needed.

The book is a sobering book, filled with actual stories of people followed over a course of many years, along with mounds of data and statistics. Here’s the author’s own summary of the key premise of the book:

Toxic inequality syndrome is a product of sustained economic hardships, family adversity, frustrated aspirations, and the persisting uncertainties of life in communities with few resources in times when more and more risk has been shifted to families and individuals. Toxic inequality often produces not only material deprivation but also psychological and even biological changes in children, blocking and cementing families’ trajectories and poisoning the lifeblood of communities. We must reverse direction.

As usual with my synopsis handouts, I began with: Why is this book worth our time?

#1 – This book helps us understand the wideness of the gap that makes up toxic inequality.
#2 – This book helps us understand the systemic, even policy-driven, processes that contribute to this widening gap that is toxic inequality. (Think “legalized” segregation, for decades!).
#3 – This book helps us understand why work ethic alone, why resolve and hard work alone, will not lead to shrinking that gap that is toxic inequality.

I included my own summary of the reality facing the many.  It takes the following to “make it”…

  • a good start
  • a good neighborhood (safety; education; stability)
  • some inheritance — (to help that good start)
  • a good (further) education – (a few words about Community Colleges and for-profit colleges}
  • a good job with good benefits (retirement; health care)

Many simply do not have access to such elements that would enable them to build a life that can “make it.” That “many” may be a growing number of our fellow citizens.

One problem is that the middle-class is indeed shrinking. Here’s part of the reason why:

Walmart’s average salaries are under $10 an hour; GM’s starting wage in 1970 was the equivalent of $23.58 in 2015 dollars. The transformation from GM to Walmart captures the grand sweep of America’s changing job landscape over recent decades.

The book especially made real the different kinds of inequality: Income inequality; Wealth inequality; and, — pay attention!—Racial inequality. I made this observation: all are bad; but, wealth inequality may be “more bad” than we had realized… Take a look at this, from the book:

Looking at a representative sample of Americans in 2013, the median net wealth of white families was $142,000, compared to $11,000 for African American families and $13,700 for Hispanic families. …In short, the basic pillars of economic security—wealth and income—are today distributed vastly inequitably along racial and ethnic lines.   

And this book, like other good books that fall in the social justice arena, reminds us that solutions must be comprehensive:

  • A tentative, piecemeal, or fragmentary response will not suffice to create equity and family prosperity; instead, we must take bold steps and enact multiple, interconnected policies to transform America.
  • any agenda for change must strengthen housing and community stability for families, emphasize quality jobs with higher wages and benefits, ensure retirement security, provide quality education, encourage savings, and reform tax policy to foster both equity and mobility.

I ended my synopsis with my 5 lessons and takeaways:

#1 – There is, in fact, great and growing/widening inequality. Recognize this; pay attention to this; spread the word about this.
#2 – Do not buy into the myth. Though there are individual exceptions/outliers, hard work does not result in massive numbers of people taking great steps up the ladder.
#3 – The inequality is “toxic,” poisoning so much in our society.
#4 – Though we should marshal all our forces (all nonprofits; all “charity” efforts), it will take changes in government policies to reverse this, and make a genuine difference for the better. Thus, who is in office matters!
#5 – If we do not acknowledge this, and address this, then the long-term consequences could be the true undermining of society as we know it.

Tom Shapiro EventMy synopsis covered many more aspects of and observations from the book; I’ve left much out of this brief article. Mr. Shapiro’s sobering book is an important and needed book. I recommend that you add it to your reading stack – and then, that you actually read it.

But the far greater challenge is this; what do we do about it? I’m not optimistic that we have the political approach, or will, to do what is needed to combat this toxic inequality that threatens so many. As the author says, “we must reverse direction!”

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