The first week of 2018 was a busy one for Darrick Hamilton, one of the country’s leading stratification economists. At the start of the new year, he traveled to the American Economic Association conference in Philadelphia to make a presentation on baby bond accounts, his novel idea to provide small trust funds to all American newborns that they could use to pay for college, buy homes, and start businesses as adults. Reporters took notice: When Hamilton got home, his inbox was full with requests to comment on the proposal. First he spoke with the Washington Post, then NPR (1A and All Things Considered), and finally the Kansas City Star.
The Milano School and New School for Social Research faculty member has been in high demand amid growing public awareness of racial, gender, and class inequality. A self-proclaimed stratification economist, Hamilton has spent his career solidifying a theoretical approach that takes into consideration structural factors — public policy, intergenerational wealth transfer, prejudice in hiring and housing — in understanding and addressing economic and health disparities. Baby bonds are designed to do just that, providing a path to economic mobility for all Americans — not just the wealthy few.
Since the Reagan era, ideas like Hamilton’s haven’t held much sway in the court of public opinion: Market-based theories, and their emphasis on individualism, efficiency, and growth, have dominated our economic system. But as the popularity of Bernie Sanders, the Fight for $15, and single-payer health care has shown, those theories are losing saliency. The notion of government as a force for good is trending up.
“People used to look at me with a jaundiced eye,” Hamilton says. “They’re not so shocked anymore.”
In a world in need of solutions to urgent problems, Hamilton believes that he and other scholars no longer have the luxury of ensconcing themselves in the ivory towers of academia (“with great power comes great responsibility,” he says). To that end, Hamilton has gone on a media blitz, talking up policy solutions to group-based inequality in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the American Prospect, Axios, the Christian Science Monitor, Jacobin, and the Huffington Post, and dozens of peer-reviewed journals. Newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and cable news programs have been blowing up his phone with requests for comment on everything from the DACA to the Fight for $15 to white racial anxiety.
Adding a few more feathers to his cap, Hamilton recently shared a spot with his longtime mentor and collaborator, Duke University economist William A. Darity, Jr., on Politico’s prestigious annual POLITICO 50 ideas list. Last month, he was promoted to full professor at The New School.
Driving Hamilton’s work is the idea that economics has an important role to play in confronting pressing social justice issues of our time.
“The economics profession has a great deal of influence in our society; in recent times, it has been shaped by market-based economic theories that don’t address equity, fairness, and empowerment,” Hamilton says. “What they fail to account for, and what stratification economics zeroes in on, are the structural impediments associated with group membership in leading to distribution of goods and services — in other words, how race, gender, and class interact to determine economic outcomes.”
Take, for example, Hamilton’s main area of interest: the racial wealth gap. In an interview for The Next System Project, he points to a number of historical and modern-day factors that have widened the chasm between Black and white incomes. They range from the obvious ones like slavery (“a period of time when Blacks were literally the capital of whites”) to more insidious ones like the creation of the Fair Housing Authority (a program that was tantamount to a “state-sponsored system of segregation”) and the GI Bill (“a benefit from which Blacks were largely excluded”).
Further examples of group-based inequalities have entered the public consciousness: the gender pay gap, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the enormous differences in health outcomes between whites and people of color.
Reflecting The New School’s socially engaged ethos, Hamilton has confronted this critical issue through a suite of bold (some would say eye-raising) policy proposals. He looks to disciplines beyond economics: sociology and its study of group hierarchy, social psychology and its examination of implicit bias and stereotype threat, and political science and its explanation of the effects of political structures, laws, and customs.
Working with Darity, Hamilton drew up a blueprint for government-guaranteed universal employment. Rooted in the proposal is the notion that a well-paying job, with benefits and salary sufficient to cover rent, transportation, and food, is a human right. It’s also based in practical concerns: many economists are predicting that over the next several years, automation will lead to job losses and anemic wages that will push millions of American workers into the ranks of the impoverished and unemployed (see: the opening of Amazon’s first cashier-less grocery store in Seattle). “Giving everyone a job,” Hamilton and Darity write in Jacobin, “is the best way to democratize the economy and give workers leverage in the workplace.”
Baby bonds are another strategy for confronting inequality. Here’s how it works: When a child is born, he or she would receive $500 to $50,000 in cash, guaranteed by the federal government, which neither the child nor his or her parents could spend until the child’s 18th birthday. They could then use it to pay for college or start a business. In his interview with the Washington Post, Hamilton rebuffs counterarguments to the idea — namely those that assume that a lack of personal responsibility, not economic opportunity, is the cause of stagnation among low-income communities of color.
“People like to argue if only poor Black and Latino families were more responsible and made better decisions, then inequality could be dramatically reduced,” Hamilton says. “But years of data and real-life evidence don’t support that conclusion.” Hamilton points to the fact that most college-educated African-Americans have less net wealth than whites who dropped out of high school.
Given the current political climate, one can’t help but wonder: Will Hamilton’s proposals ever see the light of day? He has reason to be optimistic. Programs such as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration were once unthinkable — until the Great Depression hit, creating fertile ground for the popular embrace of New Deal programs. Hamilton argues that “similar conditions exist today,” as the paychecks of ordinary get smaller and the bank accounts of the 1% get fatter. Stratification economics is becoming less taboo.
Hamilton’s interest in the field was born, in part, from his working-class upbringing in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, as well as his attendance at an elite private school with a strong social justice emphasis. Straddling these two worlds, Hamilton learned that “fundamentally, people aren’t that different — it’s their access to the resources that separates them.”
“I’m really committed and interested in providing people with resources, so that they can reach their full potential,” he says. “The idea with baby bond accounts is: give people, no matter their background, skin color, sexuality, the chance to succeed.”