Economic Inequality: What Will You Do about It?

by   |  March 10, 2016

“Think of your [fellow men] like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. But before ye seek for riches . . . seek ye for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (Jacob 2:17-18 from The Book of Mormon).

In my Darden MBA program I took an elective that focused on Economic Inequality. After learning about the sordid state of inequality throughout the world, and after muddling through the complex drivers of these problems, my professors asked us a pointed question: Now what are you going to do about it?

I gave this question serious thought. A person can often feel overwhelmed by the crippling poverty that remains in the world. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking: “If I can’t eradicate this problem on a global scale, why should I even try?”

Despite occasional hapless feelings, I plan to do several things that I do believe will move the needle on a small scale.

Empowering Children

Educating and empowering children has the most potential for change. I want to devote my life to building stronger networks for children who are at risk, whose families have for generations perpetuated the cycle of poverty.

The most impactful ways of empowering children are first: decrease the “word gap”. Second: expand their networks through mentorship. Third: change their family dynamics to provide a more supportive home environment for education and personal development. Since this third goal is by far the hardest of the three to achieve, I shall focus this treatise on the first two.

What Is the Word Gap?

The word gap is the well-documented phenomenon which wealthier parents speak an average of three million more words to their children by the age of 3 than do parents from less advantaged cohorts. See the original study by Hart & Risley and a New York Times article for more information.

This disparity in parental language input results in disparities in children’s vocabulary, linguistic capabilities and vital cognitive functions. Children who are neglected in these formative years remain stunted in their growth for the rest of their lives. By the time children get to kindergarten, it’s almost too late to overcome these problems.

Why Is the Word Gap a Problem for America?

Reading Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis helped me realize what a dramatic impact language development has on a child’s lifelong prospects and social mobility. Numerous “scissor charts” such the two below further underscore the lack of support that children from less educated, lower income families have at home.

Hampered by language delays, children cannot progress in their education. Their social mobility becomes limited and they can’t improve their economic situation even if they wanted to. They lack both the cognitive ability and the strong mentoring relationships necessary to break the cycle of poverty.

Declines in the following have tremendous adverse affects on children’s language development: number of family dinners eaten together, total words spoken to the child per day. Additionally, low-income parents are statistically more likely to speak a higher proportion of negative words, whereas higher income / more educated parents speak more positive words.

Expanding Networks

We have established that children need the cognitive foundation upon which to build a meaningful life. Children also need to build social capital through stronger networks of people who believe in them and can help guide them through their most important life decisions.

Insight from My Past Experiments

Fostering language development has unwittingly been a gift and passion of mine for years. As a mother of twin boys, I have devoted considerable time to reading them stories, asking them questions, and encouraging lively conversation throughout the day. As a former tutor and music teacher, I enjoyed discovering ways to customize lessons to fit the needs of my students. As a volunteer music director for a children’s organization, I also value the power of singing in aiding language development.

These activities have provided a training ground for me to use these skills to serve at-risk children. Through a design thinking and innovation project at Darden I have come in contact with numerous nonprofit organizations that provide services to low-income children with language delays. I now feel empowered to support and raise awareness of these organizations: Early Head Start, Kids on the Move, other programs that send home visit language specialists and speech pathologists.

What I Plan to Do

Listed below are the ideas I have for ways I can tackle the word gap and be a mentor in my community:

What I Can Do Resources to Enable My Efforts
·         Teach young children how to read and sing·         Organize reading groups and activities in low-income neighborhoods·         Periodically observe childcare centers and institutions that serve at-risk children·         Keep in touch with VersaMe, the company I have worked with to address this problem

·         Support Early Head Start, Kids on the Move and other early intervention programs

·         Engage with the PTA board in my school district

·         Lobby for Universal Preschool

·         Seek other volunteer opportunities to promote literacy, employment, and friendship (referred to as “social capital” in our class)


The neighborhood where I live and close-by neighborhoods where I have friends·         Reading circles·         Play dates with my kids

·         Dinners with families

Land O’Lakes outreach programs

·         Youth sponsorship programs

·         United Way partnership program

My church congregation and worldwide organization

·         Great chance to build networks outside of my socioeconomic circle

·         Service to local Hispanic communities

·         Other local service projects

·         Humanitarian programs

·         Perpetual Education Fund

·         Access to the world’s largest charitable women’s organization (Relief Society)

·         Visiting teaching program



A Motivating Mantra to Close

When I feel discouraged, these words help rejuvenate my motivation toward this cause:

“We are surrounded by those in need of our attention, our encouragement, our support, our comfort, our kindness . . . We are the Lord’s hands here upon the earth, with the mandate to serve and to lift His children. He is dependent upon each of us” (Thomas S. Monson, President of the LDS Church).

More on: Astonishing Data, Changing the World, Insights, MBA, Optimism
About the Author:

Mimi West is a consummate entrepreneur, brand and marketing expert. This retired opera singer and Founder of My Dream Teacher is now pursuing her MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Administration. You can follower her on Twitter: @MimiGuynnWest.
Publshed: March 10, 2016  | 
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