Former U.S. Labor Secretary gives lecture on income inequality

Community members filled the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue to hear the former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich speak about income inequality last Sunday.

During his lecture, Reich covered many topics which related to income inequality, including alternate secondary education options, the funding of public schools and his opinions about the problems with retirement in the current recovery period. Reich also addressed why he thinks it’s important to have a strong and stable middle class.

“The job creators are the people who buy things,” Reich said during the lecture. “The purchasers, the middle class and the poor.”

Reich said that when so much of the money in the economy is focused at the top, the middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going. As the gap in the economy widens, the middle class shrinks, which makes it harder for a person to move up in class or out of poverty, according to Reich.

He also talked about importance of education, stating that a four-year university liberal arts degree is the only gateway into the middle class in the U.S. He compared the U.S. to Germany, saying there should be more of an emphasis on vocational and technical schooling in the U.S. like there is in Germany.

Reich spoke about investing in early childhood development. In 2011, public K–12 schools relied on local and state government funding through taxes, each for approximately 44 percent of their funding, according to the The National Center for Education Statistics. Reich said that because of this amount of government funding, “as we segregate by income into different communities, obviously the poor communities, by virtue of being poorer and poorer, are going to have less revenue for their education.”

Reich was interactive with the crowd and asked questions to the audience to emphasize his points. When Reich said to the audience, “Was anybody here born between 1946 and 1964?” many hands went into the air.

CNN confirms Reich’s statement that within this time frame, known as the baby boomer era, nearly 77 million people were born. As these people are reaching the age of retirement, most of them can’t afford to retire because of the recession; and because pension plans are now contribution plans, they are lucky if their employer matches their contributions, according to Reich.

Reich was humorous throughout his lecture. He often joked about his height. Reich stands at 411 because of a condition called Fairbanks disease. He also joked about his hip replacements, saying his hips were “French designer hips.” And when talking about technology replacing human service jobs, he mentioned the absence of gas station attendants, which the audience was quick to inform him still exist in Oregon.

Reich was the secretary of labor during the Clinton administration from 1993 until 1997. He was also on the transition advisory board for President Barack Obama, according to his faculty biography on the University of California Berkeley’s website.

Reich’s lecture was part of the annual Oseran Family Fund lecture. It was held Sept. 28 from 4:30 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue located at 1972 Northwest Flanders Street in Portland.

The lecture series started in 2008 to bring in speakers who, according to Daniel Oseran, the Oseran family believes are, “socially responsible and that reflects Jewish values.”

Jemi Kostiner Mansfield, Beth Israel Congregational affairs director, said that the speaker is usually someone who is Jewish themselves and who “shares a liberal Democratic viewpoint.”

Mansfield stated in an email that the congregation, “has a long history of working toward social justice and has a very active and vocal Social Action Council.”

Sydney Baer, executive director of Congregation Beth Israel, said that the Congregation has not taken a specific stance on income inequality, but rather social justice as a whole.

“We aren’t advocating one specific cause,” Baer said, “but if it inspires people to make the world a better place, that’s what we hope to do.”