Public Services and Equality

Lane Kenworthy makes a point that’s simultaneously a bit obvious and also widely overlooked — high-quality public services are a highly egalitarian measure even when they’re not at all “targeted” or explicitly designed to curb inequality. The reason is that even in a pretty flat tax system, the bulk of the tax money comes from rich people (since they have the bulk of the money) whereas the value of the services is distributed more equally:

Imagine an America in which high-quality public services raise the consumption floor to a high level: most citizens can put their kids in high-quality child care followed by good public schooling and affordable access to a good college; they have access to good health care throughout life; they can get to or near work on clean and efficient public transportation or roads with limited congestion; they enjoy clean and safe neighborhoods, parks, roads, museums, libraries, and other public spaces; they have low-cost access to information, communication, and entertainment via reliable high-speed broadband; they have four weeks of paid vacation each year, an additional week or so of paid sickness leave, and a year of paid family leave to care for a child or other needy relative. Even if the degree of income inequality were no less than today and we still had CEOs, financiers, and entertainers raking in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a single year, that society would be markedly less unequal than our current one.

Something missing from this list that I would add is public safety. The prevailing high levels of violent crime in the United States have an impact that’s very strongly borne by people in the bottom half of the income spectrum. That the poorest people would live in the less-safe part of town is more-or-less built into the structure of income inequality, but it’s very possible to have a country where the “less-safe” part of town is still dramatically safer than are the unsafe parts of the contemporary United States.

But this entire phenomenon tends to get discussed pretty exclusively in the field of education. And, obviously, the uneven quality of America’s public schools is an important topic. But it’s only one aspect of the broader situation. Public transit is another. In DC, the Metro stops running at midnight on weekdays and bus service that late tends to be extremely sporadic. So when I’m out after midnight and want to go home, I’ll often hail a cab. That’s not the most expensive thing in the world, but it’s a good deal more expensive than a Metro fare. I can afford it easily enough, but many people can’t. A higher level of tax subsidy to WMATA in order to finance later Metro hours or more frequent bus service would be, in effect, an egalitarian measure.