Wednesday, May 14, 2014

O is for One Per Cent(ers)

“Occupy Wall Street!” “Support the 99 per cent!” Social and economic inequality has been increasing in most, if not all, OECD countries since the 1970’s, with the result that the top one per cent of income earners —and even more so, the top .1 and .01 per cent of earners— have taken home the overwhelming preponderance of growth over the past generation. (See general articles on the USA and Britain.) Although many scholars, politicians, and organizations (including the major Quaker service organizations and familiar groups such as England's Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the secular Equality Trust) have been trying to publicize this issue ever since it became apparent, others started paying attention in 2011 when loosely organized groups started “occupying” (i.e., camping out 24/7) in high-visibility areas like Wall Street and the “City” (the financial district of London, England). Soon other groups were occupying locations in other cities around the world, or holding demonstrations, vigils, and marches in support of greater equality of both opportunity and outcome. This spring, the French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which focuses on wealth and income inequality in Europe and the USA since the 18th century, has sold out at, where it held the number 1 rank. Not surprisingly, given our long tradition for social reform, a number of Friends supported the Occupy movement (indeed, there is a FaceBook page entitled Occupy, Quakers), and some participated.

I will leave a formal reply about the Occupy movement to Friends who participated and scholars with the expertise to evaluate it. What I would like to do, however briefly, is to consider how Quakers might fit into the broader picture of who has what in the English-speaking countries most familiar to me (the USA and Canada, and to some extent the UK and Australia). These are the observations of an armchair observer who knows much more about Julius Caesar than the Gini coefficient (which measures the degree of economic inequality in a society), so if I am way off base, please bear with me.

Because Friends are such a small percentage of the populations of each of these countries, hard data are next to impossible to come by, both historically and for the present day. For example, the Pew surveys on religion in the USA group Friends with mainline Protestant groups. However, it is my understanding that in the four countries best known to me, Friends historically were not drawn from the poorest sectors of society. Basic literacy and numeracy were needed for contributions to the life of the Monthly Meeting; with the Quaker emphasis on female participation in Meeting decisions, education was necessary for girls as well as boys. It is thus not surprising that prosperity followed for some Friends, and that for others there was tension. For instance, in Colonial Pennsylvania, the research of Barry Levy (Quakers and the American Family, 1988) has shown that Quaker young people who married other Friends and thus stayed with Quakers were better off than the average; those with fewer means had better luck attracting marriage partners from outside the Religious Society. In those days, Friends who “married out” were obligated to leave. Quaker religious leaders apparently knew the demographics of those forced out, and, at least at that time, preferred to maintain in-group cohesion at the expense of economic diversity within the Religious Society. It is not a pretty picture.

In England, Quakers could not attend university until the early nineteenth century, but a high level of basic education and in-group cohesiveness fostered an entrepreneurial culture. With the rise of capitalism came some stunningly successful Quakers and Quaker families in a variety of countries. Abraham Darby was one of a number of Quakers and others active at Coalbrookdale (see especially Paul Belford’s 2007 article in IndustrialArchaeology Review, a citation for which I owe his team member Ron Ross). Barclays and Lloyds banks, some of the great chocolate manufacturers (Cadbury, Rowntree, and Fry), and Clarks shoes —along with many other businesses— all have Quaker roots, although they have long since become parts of corporations. If we had been talking about “the one per cent” or even the “point one per cent” in Victorian England, Friends would have been reasonably well represented.

Quaker employment patterns shifted away from big business with the availability of higher education and nearly universal secondary education. Increasing urbanization and the shift of unprogrammed Meetings, at least, from an internally cohesive group connected through intermarriage to one with a large percentage of people entering and leaving in each generation reinforced these trends, as did Friends’ emphasis (at least in relative terms) on gender equity and social reform. As a result, we now see Friends in unprogrammed Meetings in a variety of small businesses and a wide range of professions, especially those that might be considered altruistic in nature. While these trends have long been apparent anecdotally, we now have some formal data — two carefully drawn surveys, both from Britain Yearly Meeting̛— that confirm them. 58.0 and 68.0 per cent of respondents had obtained at least an undergraduate degree in the 1990 and 2003 surveys, respectively (Mark S. Carey, Pink Dandelion, and Rosie Rutherford, “Comparing Two Surveys of Britain Yearly Meeting: 1990 and 2003,” Quaker Studies 13/2 [2009] p. 241). (Note: Friends from programmed Meetings in the United States may share some or all of these features, but I have neither the formal data nor the informal “feel” for those groups of Friends which would allow me to test this hypothesis.)

Given that people with better than average access to higher education and/or other kinds of social capital are more likely to prosper (or at least have a hope of holding their own) in an increasingly unequal world, how many Friends might be in that lofty one per cent? This is an unpopular question, theologically and in other respects. While we believe that talents differ (including, no doubt, the talent for making and saving money), equality is a fundamental Quaker belief. Add that to the usual taboo in most English-speaking countries about money and... well, I might find it easier to get a few Friends to help me update Towards a Quaker View of Sex.

Judging from the article in Quaker Studies, the two recent UK surveys did not ask about individual or household incomes. (If they had, maybe there would not have been a 75 per cent response rate to the questions.) However, we do know something in general terms about the top one per cent of wage earners in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom — and perhaps other countries as well, although I have not looked (I do have to work tomorrow). The figures from all of the countries are sobering, including Canada, where income inequality is not quite as severe. In terms of Canada, there are some problems with the methodology (disclaimer: one of the statisticians cited is a family friend and a colleague of my husband), but by and large Statistics Canada has a reasonable idea of who these high-income taxpayers are. 38.8 per cent are in management; 14.3 are in health; 13.7 in business, finance, and administration; 11 per cent in education, law/social, and community/government services; and 9.9 per cent in natural sciences.

However, just because 11 per cent of “the one per cent” are educators and another 14.3 per cent are employed in health care, it does not follow that the converse is true, i.e., that 11 per cent of educators and 14.3 per cent of health care workers are be members of that one per cent. All of these sectors employ vast numbers of workers, and only a few are part of the crème de la crème. To provide another example, salaries of educators, civil servants, and those health care workers who are officially part of the broader public sector in Ontario, Canada's largest province, are published annually if their income is $100,000 Canadian. Those who make around the cut-off for the one per cent are a vastly smaller group and tend to be clustered in a very few areas. (See here for the list published in March of 2011, which corresponds to the tax year in the 2011 household survey, and here for the most recent figures.)

Journalists and statistical organizations have also looked at salaries of many other professionals. The typical physician in general practice in the USA and Canada and the typical lawyer are not part of that one per cent, except maybe at the very bottom end, let alone the nurses, social workers, school teachers, small business owners, and tradespeople who make up most our membership. (Also, very often the salaries quoted are averages, and not the median, which is usually lower.) Thus, while it is impossible to know how many Friends belong to “the one per cent,” it is a reasonable back-of-the-envelope guess that the number is probably not much out of proportion to the general population. In terms of that point one per cent and the zero point one per cent who are the real movers and shakers, there will be very few Friends.

Does that let us off the hook, either individually or as a Religious Society? Not at all. First, the access to education and other forms of social capital available to many Friends means that the median individual and household income among members and attenders of unprogrammed Meetings is almost certainly greater than the national median, and that the poverty rate is lower, although the clustering of Friends in such fields as education and social work will lower the median salary. This relatively high level may be especially true of household income, given the high labor force participation of Quaker women. The improvements in women’s education and work force participation in two-earner households, from which many Quaker families have benefited (and which have indeed been necessary in a period when individual incomes outside of the elite have been stagnant or declining), have exacerbated the tendency toward economic inequality. These factors create numerous barriers to outreach and participation; I will discuss my understanding of them in later posts. (Ethnicity is a confounding factor here as well; once again, that will be the focus of another post.)

Secondly, the fact that trends in middle and working-class incomes have been unfavorable will also increasingly push those already in our midst toward a bimodal distribution of wealth.  The traditional incentives of partial financial support to attend Quaker gatherings may not do the job as well as they once did. There may also be a need to see in what ways, if any, tax codes in various countries might permit Friends Meetings to support young people in their post-secular education.

Finally, the United States, Britain, and Australia all have Quaker-affiliated or Quaker-founded educational institutions and social organizations (e.g., retirement communities and children's camps) that were either developed during the heyday of Quaker capitalism or have been established primarily for the needs of those with above-average incomes.  Admittedly, a number of Yearly Meetings also have camps for young people that cost about the same as those run by the Y or the Scouts, and Woodbrooke has a huge range of options at different price points, including some on line; but here I am talking of high-end facilities of various types that serve a much smaller number of people. Please don’t get me wrong: I am happy to see the children of high income earners learn Quaker values (they are vastly preferable to the alternative), I am delighted at an increasing number of options for retirees, and I am pleased that virtually all of these organizations are engaged in broadening their base through financial assistance. I am also aware that many people make enormous sacrifices to be part of these organizations, and that sometimes they do so because of a dearth of alternatives. Nevertheless, does the preponderance of high-priced institutions with “Quaker” as part of their institutional DNA take away some of our energies from helping those who on the whole have much less social capital and who desperately need alternatives for education or living? For instance, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States probably accomplishes significantly more for the education of disadvantaged young people than we do, on a per capita basis as well as an absolute one. (Disclaimer: family members have attended Quaker schools or secular institutions with similar demographics, and my own undergraduate alma mater, which I attended on financial aid, shares many features with Quaker ones.)

Meanwhile, my whole discussion about “the one per cent” is geared to generally wealthy countries whose citizenry is not representative of the world as a whole. Indeed, Quakers in developed countries are not representative of Friends in the world as a whole. Neither education nor income in most of the world is what most readers of this blog are likely to see around them. Looked at from this perspective, even if we are not part of a global “one per cent,” we are certainly part of a cohort of exceptionally well educated and privileged individuals. Other than getting in line if we want a hard copy of Piketty’s 696-page tome, what are we going to do about that?

Abraham Darby Climbing Rose
photographed at our house
©Kristin Lord 1998

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