Economic Empowerment

lady-justice-1-mary-tere-perezThank you for visiting the Camden Civil Rights Project page on Economic Empowerment. English philosopher John Locke’s premise that one should be fairly compensated for the fruit of their labor is a fundamental principle of our modern democracy. Furthermore, the premise that wealth can only be created through the labor of others is a foundational principle of our modern economic system.

In Wealth of Nations, the Father of Capitalism, Adam Smith, instructs us that “Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniencies, and amusements of human life.” (Book I, Ch. 5, v. 1). Smith defines these necessities and pleasures as commodities, conceding that a man’s own labor can only supply him with a limited number of these commodities, therefore, the accumulation of wealth depends upon the amount of labor a person can either purchase, or command, to produce these commodities. This  leads Smith to determine  that historically, labor is the true  measure of the “exchangeable value of all commodities.” Ibid.

Under this symbiotic economic arrangement, both, the laborer and the capitalist should theoretically benefit; each being fairly compensated based upon the value which labor “adds to the materials upon which it is bestowed.” (I.8.8).  However, Smith observes, as “inequality of fortune” begins to increase it introduces “a degree of authority and subordination which could not possibly exist before.” (V.1.55). In this stage of economic development, Smith warns, the property owners who benefit most from the existing social arrangement become “necessarily interested to support that order of things which can alone secure them in the possession of their own advantages… Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”   Ibid.

Most experts agree that the current level of economic disparity in the United States is unsustainable. The average American’s wages have stagnated since the 1970’s. Adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has approximately the same purchasing power as it did in 1979. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, in real terms, the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 in today’s wages. What gains have been made, have gone to the upper income brackets. Since 2000, usual weekly wages have fallen 3.7% (in real terms) among workers in the lowest tenth of the earnings distribution, and 3% among the lowest quarter. But among people near the top of the distribution, real wages have risen 9.7%. UC Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez and the Paris School of Economics report that since 2009, 95%  of all income gains have gone to the top 1%.

Our archives contain a variety of informative print, audio and video materials which track the evolution of income disparity and the negative social impact it has had upon middle class Americans whose economic opportunities have steadily declined over the last several decades. Archived articles can be accessed by clicking on the links below. Please feel free to use the comment section below to recommend materials and resources you believe will aid in creating a better understanding of the causes of wealth disparity in the U.S. and strategies for creating a more sustainable economic arrangement.



Employee Ownership: A More Equitable Approach to Capitalism?

by L. Christopher Skufca (Camden Civil Rights Project)

The Past and Future of America’s Social Contract

by Josh Freedman and Michael Lind (The Atlantic)

For Most Workers, Real Wages Have Barely Budged for Decades

by Drew Desilver (Pew Research Center)

The Great American Bubble Machine

by Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone)

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page (Cambridge Journal)

City on the Brink: Economic and Community Development in Camden, NJ

by V. Michele Farquharson

Are Jobs the Solution to Poverty?

by Marianne Page (University of California – Davis)

The Billion-Dollar Question – When Will the US Repair Its Damaged Democracy?

by Timothy Garton Ash (Guardian)



John Rawls: The Veil of Ignorance (2015)

Synopsis: What’s your blueprint for a just society? Your answer probably reflects who you are and the situation you find yourself in. If you’re rich, you may well be in favour of the freedom to earn and enjoy the fruits of your efforts; if you’re poor you’re likely to be more supportive of a system that redistributes wealth. John Rawls argued it might be more just to construct this blueprint from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’.

View the video HERE 

Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2015)

Synopsis: How does religion fit with the world of business? Perhaps more closely than you think. The sociologist and economist Max Weber argued that after the Christian Reformation one form of Protestantism, Calvinism, encouraged a different attitude towards work, with far-reaching effects.

View the video HERE

Karl Marx: On Alienation (2015)

Synopsis: Karl Marx believed that work, at its best, is what makes us human. It allows us to live, be creative and flourish. But under capitalism he saw workers alienated from each other and the product of their labour. Karl Marx remains deeply important today not as the man who told us what to replace capitalism with, but as someone who brilliantly pointed out what was inhuman and alienating about it.

View the video HERE

How Class Works

In this short video, economist Richard Wolff explains our class society and applies that understanding to our current financial recession. Wolff argues that a minority class determines the way our society distributes the output and places those who receive the profits in the position of deciding how they are utilized, “…We all live with the results of what a really tiny minority in our society decides to do with the profits everybody produces.” This video was produced by the National Association of County and City Public Health Officals (NACCHO) as a part of thier Roots of Heath Inequality Project. The project is a web-based course for the public health workforce and “How Class Works” is one section of the course. As you watch and listen, consider what we know about disease and illness patterns among groups with lower income, higher stress levels, and decreased control over their economic lives. Consider how investment decisions in neighborhoods over transportation, school facilities, parks, location of grocery stores, quality of affordable housing, etc. are influenced by powerful interests and affect the quality of life for large segments of our population.

View the videos HERE

Martin Luther King, Jr: The Other America  (1967)

Synopsis: In the final weeks of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. increasingly turned his focus on Americans plagued by poverty – “the other America.” On April 14, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at Stanford University suggesting there are two America’s: one which “is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity,” and another where  individuals “find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He called for “a guaranteed minimum income for all people,” urging social justice advocates to turn their attention towards organizing a national movement to address the problem of the nation’s growing economic disparity.

View the video HERE

Howard Zinn: Hidden History of The American Working Class (1992)

Synopsis: Social activist, political scientist and labor historian, Howard Zinn, delivers a presentation on  “The History Of The American Working Class.” The presentation took place in San Francisco at an educational forum sponsored by the Labor Video Project. Zinn was political science professor at Boston University and was considered the preeminent scholar on civil disobedience during the Vietnam War Era. He has authored more than twenty books, including his highly influential work, A People’s History of the United States.

View the video HERE

The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworker’s Movement (1996)

Synopsis: The Fight in the Fields traces the history of the United Farmworkers Union and the life of its founder, César Chávez, from his birth in Arizona, his education into organizing and non-violence, his formation of the union, to his death in 1993. It includes newsreel footage of the Delano grape boycott, Senate hearings conducted by Robert F. Kennedy, Chávez’s fasts, encounters with growers and rival Teamsters. Recent interviews with Chávez family members, Ethyl Kennedy, Roger Cardinal Mahony, Governor Jerry Brown, and current and past UFW leaders round out the history and assessment of Chávez and the Union.

View the video HERE

Poet of Poverty (2010)

Poet of PovertySynopsis: The 2008 documentary film, Poet of Poverty, investigates how a city like Camden, New Jersey, which is annually ranked among the poorest and most dangerous cities in America, can come into existence in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. The film is based on the letters of Father Michael Doyle, a local parish priest, which are narrated by Martin Sheen.

The film’s opening segment was written in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Martin Sheen narrates Father Doyle’s account of a student’s comment that “I’m not afraid because if the terrorists fly over Camden, they’ll think they have done it already.” A second two minute segment, entitled “Hope in Camden,” features Martin Sheen narrating the poem The Dolphins Danced on Arlington to the visual of impoverished children in Camden at play in a makeshift pool built from a discarded hot tub and their imagination.

View the videos HERE

Richard Wilkinson: How Economic Inequality Harms Societies (2011)

Synopsis: For decades, British social epidemiologist, Richard Wilkinson, has studied the societal effects of income inequality upon developed nations. In this twenty minute presentation, Wilkinson, charts the hard data on economic inequality and explains the societal effects income disparity has on health, lifespan, and basic societal values, such as trust, when the income gap between the wealthiest and the poorest citizens in a society becomes too wide. Wilkinson presents statistical evidence gathered over decades of research which suggests that, among developed countries, societies with a smaller income gap between wealthiest and poorest citizens are healthier and experience fewer social problems such as violence, drug abuse, and mental illness than societies with greater disparities in the distribution of wealth.

Richard Wilkinson is Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, having retired in 2008. He is also an Honorary Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London.

View the video HERE

Robert Reich: Inequality for All (2013)

Synopsis: In 2008, the Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers collapsed triggering the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Unlike the New Deal era reforms, the financial response to our modern crisis was to entrench existing wealth through government assistance. Meanwhile, millions of working class Americans lost their homes, pensions and employment. During the economic recovery period, the top 1 percent of Americans have captured approximately 95 percent of the income gains while the middle class has been forced to accept pay cuts.  As a result, the current divide between the top 1 percent of Americans and the lowest 99 percent is the greatest it ever been since the Great Depression.

Bill Moyer and political economist, Robert Reich, discuss the growing income equality in America.  Reich warns the middle class in America is shrinking at an alarming rate and the record income gap is undermining our democracy. Reich is currently Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He served in the administrations of presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and was Secretary of Labor from 1993-1997 under the Bill Clinton administration.

View the video HERE

Paul Piff: Does Money Make You Mean? (2013)

Synopsis: It’s amazing what a rigged game of Monopoly can reveal. In this entertaining but sobering talk, social psychologist Paul Piff shares his research into how people behave when they feel wealthy. (Hint: badly.) But while the problem of inequality is a complex and daunting challenge, there’s good news too — psychological encouragement seems to “nudge” individuals towards greater empathy in adopting egalitarian ideals. (Filmed at TEDxMarin.)

 View the video HERE

Paul Krugman: The United States is Becoming an Oligarchy (2014)

Synopsis: Bill Moyer and economist Paul Krugman discuss French economist,Thomas Pickety’s concept of Patrimonial Capitalism. Krugman explains how inherited wealth is creating tremendous inequalities in income and wealth in the United States which threaten our system of participatory democracy. Krugman points out that as wealth continues to concentrate, political influence has become limited to a very small percentage of American society which is becoming increasingly hostile to the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Krugman is a Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. In 2008, Krugman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.

View the video HERE

Nick Hanauer: Beware, Fellow Plutocrats, the Pitchforks are Coming (2014)

Synopsis: Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, describes himself as a “proud and unapologetic capitalist.” Hanauer was one of the first investors in, where he served as adviser to the board until 2000. He also founded (which eventually merged with and Avenue A Media which was acquired by Microsoft in 2007, under the new name aQuantive, for $6.4 billion. In 2000, Hanauer co-formed the Seattle-based venture capital company, Second Avenue Partners, which funds and advises early stage internet companies such as HouseValues Qliance, and Newsvine.

Hanauer has become an important voice in the raging debate over income inequality. His provocative argument is aimed towards his fellow plutocrats: Wake up! Growing inequality is about to push our society into conditions resembling pre-revolutionary France. Hear Nick’s argument about why a dramatic increase in minimum wage could grow the middle class, deliver economic prosperity … and prevent a revolution.

View the video HERE

Owens Jones: The Politics of Hope (2015)

Synopsis: Owen Jones, a British columnist, author and political activist speaks at the 2015 FutureFest about how the “Politics of Envy” is being used to redirect the middle class’s anger about the economic climate away from the policymakers and towards the lower class. Jones is a regular columnist for The Guardian and the New Statesman. He is also the author of ‘Chavs’ and ‘The Establishment.’

View the video HERE

Pope Francis: Address to U.S. Congress (2015)

Synopsis: Pope Francis made history on September 24, 2015, with his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress — the first ever by a sitting pope. His remarks touched on America’s democratic tradition, religious tolerance, immigration and economic disparity.

Pope Francis asserts that the focus of legislators should always be on the concerns of the people they serve, appealing to Congress to use their authority to shape a more equitable society: “Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”

View the video HERE


Suggested Reading

Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Mankind (1751)

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract (1762)

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Subdivision of Property (1785)

Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to James Madison

The Natural Aristocracy (1813)

Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to John Adams

Black Reconstruction in America (1936)

by W.E.B. Du Bois

A People’s History of the United States (1980)

by Howard Zinn

Outliers: The Story of Success (2008)

by Malcolm Gladwell

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012)

by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

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“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

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