Imagine walking down a busy street. You see people you’ve never met hustle to and fro. They’re going to work, school, and social gatherings. Some faces are smiling; others, not so much. You don’t know them and they don’t know you.
Now, imagine seeing digits carefully placed above their heads. When you look at these digits you judge someone beyond their race, ethnicity, age, gender, potential sexual identification. These numbers allow you to see someone’s annual income, and even their net worth. Suddenly, that man with ripped jeans looks a lot more impressive with a staggering 7 digits above his head, doesn’t he? Or, how about the mother with two kids followed along by a 4-digit number?
Would you worry more? Would you care more? How would you evaluate disparities?
Traditionally, annual incomes are closely guarded secrets. Nobody knows what their neighbors make most of the time. Unless you work for a public, governmental organization that requires public disclosures, annual income is between you and your employer.
Even more difficult to ascertain is net worth. As a total of all assets — liquid and non-liquid — it can be challenging to calculate. Net worth represents a total wealth after taxes that’s yours to keep and grow and spend as you see fit.
Aside from the aforementioned exception for public employees, income and net worth tend to stay private. Broaching the subject in certain company can seem gruff, rude, or downright hostile. To talk about these numbers is to admit something… personal.
It’s as if net worth represents our worth.
If you were to ask your neighbors what their incomes and net worth was, how might they react? How about your friends? How about your acquaintances? And perhaps most tellingly, how would your parents react?
Likely, there would be some awkward reactions, defensiveness, shame, and dread about talking in depth about digits. Those in poverty might exhibit the same emotions as those who are wealthy. Talking about money management and worth are inexplicably tied to self-worth and self-identity.
The consequences of this hush-hush mentality have been grave. To publicly acknowledge may seem novel, but silence harbors injustices and prejudices. And that’s why we must throw open the door to personal vaults and share.
Take the gender gap injustice: women make 77 cents for every $1 men make. There’s nothing fair about it. If we treated, understood, and respected women as equals, this pay gap wouldn’t exist. Women also deserve paid maternity leave, child care assistance, and flexible health insurance options should they be single parents. Each of these failures in assistance perpetuate gender inequities.
Another population that suffers greatly for economic privacy are African Americans. In 2011, black workers made an average (median) household income of $39,760. Whites took home a staggering $67,175 in comparison. Racial inequality has been around for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean we should accept this status quo. Again, various factors hold African Americans back: high policing in black neighborhoods, judicial policies that prejudicially penalize non-violent drug offenders, and poorer educational opportunities in predominantly minority communities.
Between communities, tremendous per capita incomes exist. You can be born and stay in poverty — all as a consequence of your birthplace. In Washington, D.C., the average per capita income is $45,290. But in poverty stricken post-boom-and-bust Gary, Indiana, each resident makes an average $15,764. While these average incomes help show broader income inequality, they’re depersonalized. You can’t see the individual and how that one person must live.
Annual income and net worth become two of the best measurements for the consequences of these hurtful, unequal policies. By failing to openly discuss these issues, we fail every disadvantaged group.
By opening up our wallets for analysis, we may squirm and squeal. It’s uncomfortable to admit our total salary and savings because we think it says something about who we are; frankly, it does. But there’s a chance that if we admit our incomes and net worth, we’re providing those looking for equality an opportunity to stake their claim.
Oh, lest some commenter call me a hypocrite, I make about $20,000 per year.