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Economic inequality is a challenge for democracy


Thinking about the future of democracy in the United States and in New Mexico, it’s necessary to consider the challenges presented to a well-functioning democratic system by high levels of economic inequality. 

In New Mexico income per capita has bounced around for the last 40 years, sometimes being a little higher than 80 percent of the national average and sometimes a little lower.  It’s perhaps better known that New Mexico is generally at the bottom of the list of states ranked by per-capita income. 

Another perspective on this issue is gained by looking at poverty rates.  New Mexico’s poverty rate and its rate for children living in poverty are both about 40 percent higher than the national average.

Low levels of income and relatively high poverty are closely tied to the challenges of accessing good health and medical care, providing equitable education to all students, and promoting an improved quality of life in the 21st century. 

The League of Women Voters of New Mexico believes that the state should have a strong leadership role in planning, implementing and funding economic development that includes good jobs with good wages and a healthy quality of life for all residents. However, these actions take time.  In the meanwhile, the New Mexico Legislature recently provided some relief for low-income individuals by approving the low-income comprehensive tax rebate and the working families tax credit.  Even if the taxpayer does not owe income taxes, the increased rebate is available. 

As these mechanisms to address low levels of income are applied, it’s also important to explore the implications of wide and growing disparities in income and wealth across the state and nation. For example, it has been reported that the portion of New Mexico’s population at the highest income level has expanded its share of wealth during the past year.  This is consistent with a comment displayed in social media that we are not all in the same boat experiencing the pandemic; instead, we are in the same ocean with some on yachts and others in rowboats. 

According to the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, from 1979 to 2007 (before the Great Recession), average household income, after transfers and taxes, quadrupled for the top 1 percent of households with much smaller increases for the middle 60 percent and bottom 20 percent. These disparities contribute to concerns about campaign financing and the use of “dark” money. 

Our system for funding elections has a history of being dominated by small numbers of wealthy donors. Contributions through Super PACs (political action committees) conceal the identities of the donors, making it difficult for voters to evaluate the information or misinformation directed at them in soliciting their votes.

Education, including media literacy, and civic engagement can be important factors in addressing the challenges posed by economic inequality. With substantial funding being distributed to school districts in response to the pandemic, we as citizens need to monitor how it addresses growing economic inequality and supports democracy.

Kathy Brook and Eileen VanWie are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Southern New Mexico.