Inequities and Morality

March 29th, 2010

By Tom Carter

An article in The Washington Post today made me start thinking about inequities in American society and the moral responsibility we have, if any, to help those of our fellow citizens who have the least.

The article focuses on proposed Metro fare increases in Washington, D.C. and suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.  The Metro system includes both buses and the subway system.  It’s a complex system in terms of administration and finances, given that it includes the District and parts of two states, with costs paid by contributions from the various jurisdictions, weighted by a variety of factors, plus fares paid by riders.

Because Metro has significant operating shortfalls and revenue shortfalls in the jurisdictions it serves, it’s proposing to increase bus fares by 20 percent and rail fares by 15 percent.  The cost of getting on a bus would go from $1.25 to $1.50 and for getting on the subway from $1.65 to $1.90.

Here’s the issue:  Bus riders claim that it’s not equitable to have a higher increase on them and a lower increase on rail riders.  Why?  Because it places a greater burden on those least able to pay.  And, of course, there are statistics.  For example, bus riders have a median annual income of $69,000 and are 50 percent minority (mostly African American).  Rail (subway) riders have a median annual income of $102,000 and are 75 percent white.

The article, which is sympathetic to the complaint of inequity, focuses in part on the plight of one African American woman who commutes to work by bus from the Maryland suburbs to the center of the District.  To get to work, it takes 90 minutes, three buses, and $2.10.  Presumably, her cost of getting to work, one way, would go up to about $2.50 per day.

I know, I know — this is a local issue and involves relatively small amounts of money.  But it’s illustrative of our continuing conversation about income inequity, redistribution, welfare, charity, and the legitimate roles of government.  Sometimes it’s useful to look away from the forest and study a few individual trees.

Conservatives would probably point out that the woman highlighted in the article has six children between the ages of 6 and 19, she’s probably unmarried, and the children most likely have different fathers who contribute little or nothing to their support.  In other words, her problems are the result of her own bad choices.  They would probably cite data showing that a significant majority of people in poverty in America have luxuries beyond those of most people in the rest of the world.  Moreover, she and her children are most likely already receiving taxpayer-funded assistance of a variety of kinds.  Bottom line:  It’s inappropriate to use transportation costs as a means of redistributing income.  Metro fares and fare increases should be based only on the operating needs of the two subsystems, particularly since public funds already pay a large part of the operating costs.

Liberals, on the other hand, would probably point out that the fair way to allocate transportation costs would be on the basis of ability to pay.  Why should the average bus rider, most of whom are poorer and minorities, pay about 4.5 percent of their annual income for transportation to and from work, while the average subway rider, most of whom are richer and white, pay about 3.9 percent of their annual income for the same transportation?  And since it would be impractical to calculate every rider’s fare on the basis of income, going with the statistics is the only reasonable answer.  Bottom line:  This isn’t some part of a larger conspiracy to redistribute income — it’s an issue of fairness in allocating the costs of public transportation, just as more of the taxpayer funds that support the system come disproportionately from wealthier people.  By that reasoning, bus fares should be lower and should be increased less.

Wishy-washy moderate that I am, I basically agree with both arguments. However, given that taxpayer funds already support the system and are collected mostly from people with higher incomes, fares for both subsystems should be based on operating costs.  If the District and local suburban governments want to subsidize the transportation costs of lower-income people (which I don’t think is necessarily a bad idea), let them do it in the open, in full view of taxpaying voters.

As to the larger issues, in a modern, complex society — not to mention a humane society — there’s no way to avoid a certain amount of redistribution of wealth through welfare programs, public charity, means-based allocation of public services, and disproportionate taxation.  The mainstream debate in American has always been about how and how much, not about if.  That’s the way it should be.

Those who know what the word “socialism” means understand that this isn’t it.  The U.S. is the richest nation on earth, and it isn’t socialist to share some of the benefits of that wealth with those who have less.  And the fact that our poorest citizens live better than most other people on earth should be a source of pride.

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2 Responses to “Inequities and Morality”

  1. Clarissa |

    “riders have a median annual income of $69,000 and are 50 percent minority (mostly African American). Rail (subway) riders have a median annual income of $102,000 and are 75 percent white.”

    -These numbers are a little confusing. If the median annual income in the US in 2006-2008 was $52,000 (, then here we are talking about people who have a significantly higher standard of living than average Americans. Then what sense does it make to help them out even more?

  2. Tom |

    Good point, Clarissa. I thought about that, too, and checked it out. I probably should have said something about it.

    The median household income in the Washington MSA (metropolitan statistical area) is $72,800. It’s higher in some suburbs and lower in others, and there’s often more than one wage earner in a household.

    It’s likely that residents of Prince Georges County, MD who commute to work in D.C. by bus are well into the lower half of that median range. Considering that the federal poverty guideline for a family of seven is $33,270 it’s possible that a single mother with six children could be below that level. That’s not necessarily the woman in the article; there’s not that much information about her. However, she lives in Temple Hills, MD (in PG County), where the the median annual income for women is $32,500.

    Although this is just one example, considering the demographics of the Washington area, it’s likely that a good number of people riding the buses to and from work would come close to it.

    One reason I was interested in the article is I lived in the Washington area for about 10 years (three in the District, three in VA, and four in MD). I used Metrorail extensively and Metrobus to a lesser extent. For two years when I lived in the District, I commuted to and from work using both.

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