While the saying ‘rich get richer’ holds, it doesn’t do justice to the overall problem of economic inequality in our society.
Due to factors such as nutrition, education, and social or environmental challenges, kids born into low-income families have progressively lower chances of climbing up the ladder and achieving better outcomes.
Never mind building wealth, the poor family may not even realize the value of a good investment advisor. They never learned the relevant financial literacy skills.
Meanwhile, children from upper-income households get a head start in life. They are better-positioned to afford unpaid internships or pursue higher education, manage their finances wisely, and pass on these cumulative advantages to the next generation.
How can any individual make a real contribution to changing this problem?
Taking up the fight
Inequality itself is only a symptom: it’s the American dream that’s truly at stake. We believe that despite different life circumstances, everyone should have equal opportunities in this country.
That doesn’t apply when the elite can hoard dreams and perpetuate their privileged status while shutting the door on almost everyone else.
Our system indeed allows for some mobility, but rich children remain twice as likely as poor kids to end up in the middle class or above.
Making matters worse, inequality falls into the category of so-called ‘wicked problems’: complex issues that become challenging to solve because of how they interact with other issues.
Wicked problems deprive the individual of their sense of agency because we believe that they can only be effectively tackled through policy change and top-down interventions.
The poor might give way to feelings of anger, frustration, and helplessness. The rich may acknowledge that a privileged upbringing plays a part in their success but are too invested in the status quo to effect change.
Those in the middle are often too caught up in the struggle to better their own fortunes to even worry about this issue.
Targeting systems change
But it’s not true that individuals are powerless to fight economic inequality. We need to filter out the noise.
The real solution to wicked problems should target improvements to our systems.
Modern governments are still mired in antiquated ways of thinking and bureaucratic procedures. These ineffective systems prevent actors from realizing the scope of the problem and their ability to accomplish change. They are vulnerable to the meddling of parties with a vested interest in maintaining the current imbalance.
Yet there’s reason to hope that a data-driven world can change that.
In the past decade, we’ve seen the disruptive potential of new online information networks. Before Facebook was accused of enabling the spread of misinformation, protest movements in the likes of Egypt and Greece harnessed these channels.
The flip side is mastering this new digital frontier. And Estonia is a case study in getting this right.
This nation of over a million people has a recent history of putting digital first. Its state services are almost completely online. Citizens need only provide their information to authorities once and control how that data is accessed and shared.
While these changes are still a work in progress, Estonia has already reaped the rewards in terms of education. It’s a top performer in the 2020 PISA results, with a high level of student equality despite modest spending.
Towards digital transformation
If children receive equal education opportunities, that’s a big step away from the predetermined outcomes of an entrenched economic divide.
They will be equipped with the tools of knowledge and have a fair chance at forging their own fortunes, regardless of background.
And as Estonia shows, digital transformation is the key to making that breakthrough. But that won’t happen until our society, both the people and their leaders, truly value their relationship with data.
Every individual has an imperative to become a true digital citizen. In this age of online misinformation and conspiracy theories, it’s more vital than ever to engage with this powerful and influential technology responsibly.
Start by valuing your data, managing your digital footprint, and fighting for your privacy rights, making it more difficult for companies to use algorithms to profile and target you.
Be critical of the information you receive online, and you can avoid being a facilitator in the spread of fake news that leads to nihilistic social movements.
If you have the opportunity or resources to contribute, help low-income families in your community bridge inequality in terms of digital access.
Such steps towards improvement are low-hanging fruit for the average person today. And as we embrace digital transformation in our personal lives, we can also drive the necessary collective change towards a digital-first, citizen-centric, zero-bureaucracy system.