Make America great again by addressing inequality

Make America great again by addressing inequality

The writer heads the China Development Forum

Anger triggered by the death of George Floyd continues to spread in the US. My experience as a Chinese researcher focused on economic and social development issues tells me that his killing by a Minneapolis police officer does not only reflect entrenched racism toward black people in the US. It is rather a symbol and a demonstration of the many difficulties a minority may encounter in America.

I took my first trip to the US in the 1980s, to a conference at the UN headquarters in New York. As part of the visit I attended a show performed by children from around the world. The first group on stage came from the Soviet Union. They all had light-coloured hair and skin and wore uniform clothing. The American children were different: they had black, white, yellow or brown skin, and were of different heights and weights.

I was impressed. The US was truly a melting pot of multiracial groups, where people worked and played together. No matter their skin colour or their religious background, they all believed they were at the same starting point and had a chance to achieve the “American dream”.

As head of a Chinese non-profit organisation, I continued to visit the US, researching and observing its efforts to promote social equity, from President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, to the national Head Start project for preschoolers and the Harlem Children’s Zone anti-poverty programme. My good friend Darren Walker, now president of the Ford Foundation, was a member of the first Head Start class in 1965.

The US pioneered advanced research on dealing with social inequality through early childhood development programmes. We in China, including my team, have learnt a great deal from Americans about early childhood interventions, and US-based scholars such as Amartya Sen and James Heckman have supported our efforts and provided valuable advice.

We in China are still fighting against social inequity. But I am shocked by what has happened in the US. Social rifts are widening. The US has one of the highest income inequality rates among OECD countries. America provides minorities with reduced opportunities for education, health, and political rights, and this disparity has persisted for decades.

Why has the US, a country with such advanced sciences and rich experience in dealing with social inequity, fallen so short? Based on my understanding of both the US and Chinese social systems, I believe the answer is that the US has not been able to capitalise on its good intentions, and has instead allowed some of its best innovations to founder.

First, interventions are costly. The Harlem project spends up to $20,000 annually per child, raised through charity. Only 36 per cent of eligible children aged 3-5 have access to Head Start, and just 11 per cent those aged 0-3 could attend an Early Head Start programme. Donations can pay for projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone but finding the money to promote a nationwide programme is far more challenging.

Second, the structure of American government limits its ability to intervene. A patchwork of federal, state and local authorities makes it difficult to provide services, such as home-based parenting guidance, to everyone who needs it. In China, almost every child has a birth and vaccination record which make it easy to locate the child’s village and determine his or her needs. In the US, volunteers sometimes have to go to hair salons and community centres to find young mothers and persuade them to participate in intervention projects.

Thirdly, Americans spend too much time fighting about and lobbying for government spending, and too little time carrying out and monitoring the programmes that are funded. Even when local governments and charities come up with innovative and feasible programmes, there is a lack of co-ordination at the federal level.

China and the US have a lot of room for co-operation. We both need to promote better social mobility for people living in underprivileged communities.

In the more than 30 years since I first visited New York, China has absorbed US’s best anti-poverty practices and adapted them to the Chinese setting. We are boosting income levels and living conditions as well educational equity. Yet the US seems to have little willingness to learn from other countries’ experiences. As Jared Diamond points out in Upheaval, Americans always insist that they are unique. And until now, they have been unable to agree that more needs to be done about income inequality.

Now two further challenges are arising. The US faces increased competition as developing economies including China, India and Brazil, with a total population of around 3bn, continue to modernise. And America itself is changing — in 20 to 30 years, the white population will no longer be the majority.

Proper handling of internal racial conflicts will be vital if the US is to sustain its founding values and cope with a world where other countries are rising. As a longtime student of the US, I am disappointed by its current failure to attend to social inequality at home while its leaders focus on provocations abroad.