Commentary: A Christmas Tale of Two Cities

Sad, but true, economic inequality is the defining social justice issue of our time.

Posted: 12/20/2013 10:58 AM EST

In this "most wonderful time of the year," I've been conflicted about my feelings lately. That's because I've become increasingly convinced that economic inequality is the defining social justice issue of our time, and yet too many of our political leaders won't dare do anything about it.

Maybe they just don't see it. It is possible to understand the concept of inequality from an intellectual perspective, but it might be better to share a personal perspective. Because of my own background and unusual living situation, I've been able to see the highs and lows of America's economy every week.

You see, I live in Miami Beach in one of the wealthiest communities in the area. Mind you, I'm not wealthy, but many of my neighbors are. They drive Bentleys and Maseratis, dine in the most expensive restaurants, and occupy beautiful high-rise condos overlooking the point where the ocean meets the bay.

On the other hand, I also have an apartment in Harlem, in a neighborhood with more than its fair share of low-income occupants. I'm not poor either, but many of my neighbors are. They scrape together cash to take the subway, eat at local bodegas, and live in high-rise tenements and housing projects.

For the rich people in South Beach, life couldn't be better right now. The stock market is booming, real estate values have rebounded, and corporate profits and executive compensation have soared. For the poor people in Harlem, however, life couldn't be worse. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, many are sick and uninsured, and affordable housing is becoming increasingly scarce as gentrification pushes out longtime rental residents in favor of more affluent property owners.

It seems trite to say, but we seem to be living in a modern version of Charles Dickens' best of times and worst of times. Yet this is not only a tale of two cities but of two very different life experiences. That's because when I look at the lives of my mostly professional associates, I realize they have almost nothing in common with the life experiences of my family members. Once again, I've seen both sides.

As a CNBC contributor, I have the privilege of working alongside well-educated, well-paid colleagues who pull down handsome salaries. Many have benefited from the rise in the stock market. Few have to worry about their next paycheck or struggle to pay a light bill. 

But as the product of an extended middle-class family, I also see how my own relatives are still struggling in this economy. In the last month, for example, I've had the chance to visit family members in several cities across three different states. Their experiences have convinced me that our country isn't doing nearly enough to grow the economy for everyone.

One close family member depends on a government pension for retirement. Another was laid off this fall and relies on unemployment benefits while looking for work. A third young man just got a 50 cent raise after two years of working a minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant in the south. A fourth is a college sophomore struggling to meet the rising costs of tuition. And a fifth has had to use food stamps to make ends meet. Only one of them has health insurance. All of them are my family.

It's one thing for politicians in Washington to debate abstract questions about the economy, but many of us know the real people who are affected by their decisions. They want their leaders and their government to help them get back on their feet, not to demonize them for being down on their luck.

If we raised the minimum wage, which politicians are debating now in Washington, I know a young family member who could afford to get his hair cut and turn his cellphone back on. If we extend unemployment benefits, which Congress seems reluctant to do before the Dec. 31 deadline, I know a relative who could keep a roof over her children's heads. If we restore funding to food stamp recipients, which many Republicans oppose, I can think of at least two family members who will be able to provide healthy meals for the families.

For many in my family, these political debates are not an abstraction. They see the real life consequences of what goes on in Washington. If we cut back on student loans and federal aid for education, I know a kid in my family who will have to work more than the 30 hours a week he already spends on the job between classes just to pay his tuition. And if we were to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I can count at least five family members who won't get the Christmas gift of health care they're expecting at the end of the month.

Yes, I could make a policy argument or an intellectual argument for our government to do more, but facts and logic won't soften a hardened heart. So for me, as we celebrate the holidays this year, helping people in need is not just the smart thing to do. It's the right thing to do.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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