Making Capitalism Work for More People
Three students share their views on capitalism in the context of the challenges they and many of their peers face — and why they remain optimistic for their future.
As part of The Catalyst’s focus on making capitalism work for all, editors William McKenzie and Andrew Kaufmann spoke with three students from the University of North Texas at Dallas (UNT Dallas) about the barriers to more Americans enjoying economic and social mobility. What hurdles must they overcome to gain greater access to capital, information, jobs, and good wages?
UNT Dallas was launched as a freestanding institution in 2009 to primarily serve students in southern Dallas, a community that long has struggled economically. Monty Grant, Jr., a sophomore political science major, is the school’s former student body president. Jasmine Ogburn, a junior psychology major, is the records officer for the Student Government Association (SGA). Gabriela Soto, a junior human services major, is a senator in the SGA. In a conversation in the university’s new library, the leaders shared their views on the challenges student debt presents, the need for capitalism to serve people, and the networks social media opens up to prospective workers. They also talked about what gives them hope for the future.
What do you all see as the primary challenges to more people, especially young people, enjoying the fruits of a capitalistic economy?
Ogburn: Our generation has college debt as its first hurdle. Young adults are signing up to be in debt for decades. As a system, capitalism cannot dig us out of that debt and into a middle class lifestyle. Capitalism alone can’t do that.
Grant: I agree. Getting us out of debt is a big thing, although UNT Dallas was just rated as the number one public university in Texas with the lowest debt. That is my not-so-shameful plug!
Capitalism works well, and it doesn’t work well. When things are owned just for the sake of making a profit for the company, we are not focusing on how to get an individual into the middle class. We need to reroute capitalism where it makes money for the company but also where it makes a profit for the individual, particularly for young people. They then can give back to the company.
Soto: Obtaining an education is difficult for many students in southern Dallas. Sometimes we are forced to go into community college or leave education because of the student debt and work minimum-paying jobs. Communities like southern Dallas face that issue every day.
"Our generation has college debt as its first hurdle. Young adults are signing up to be in debt for decades.”
Let’s go back to what Jasmine said, that capitalism is not a system that can dig students out of debt. What does that mean? Why can’t it?
Ogburn: At its root, capitalism is very American. It is about being productive, getting things done, making more money, keep doing. That works but it also leaves the people who are struggling – minorities, socio-economically disadvantaged people — down at the bottom.
Grant: As an example, privately-owned pharmaceuticals keep on raising costs. Minorities and others often struggle to afford them. Some struggle to pay for insulin. Some go without it. Some go to other nations to find knock-off insulin. Raising the price for what someone needs will not help get people out of debt.
Soto: Lack of education plays into this. Education is the foundation for everything. A lot of low-income people, including students, are focused on making it day-by-day. They are not focused on what capitalism means for them. They are working at minimum-wage jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet. When you lack the ability to make it, everything else doesn’t matter.
“Education is the foundation for everything. A lot of low-income people, including students, are focused on making it day-by-day. They are not focused on what capitalism means for them. They are working at minimum-wage jobs to pay the bills and make ends meet."
Monty, what about the fact that profit-making institutions have the capital to develop new drugs? They can do things in a way that a government has a harder time doing.
Grant: You are right. Businesses have capital to invest without worrying about how to get the money. In that case, capitalism does work. But once you make the drug and keep raising the price, the common person may not be able to afford the medicine. That’s what I am talking about. The businesses are only focused on themselves, not on serving the people.
Should capitalism serve the people?
Grant: Yes. Whatever you do, you are creating something to serve someone. No matter what you do, whether that is making food, medicines, or something else, it serves someone.
"Whatever you do, you are creating something to serve someone. No matter what you do, whether that is making food, medicines, or something else, it serves someone."
This debate about whether capitalism should serve the people is an age-old one and is being debated again today. Should capitalism focus only on the bottom line, or should it also serve workers, suppliers, and others who might have a stake in its operation?
Soto: I think it should serve stakeholders as well. One of my moral duties as a human is to serve others. Building capital shouldn’t be the only purpose. You have to include in the system people from communities like southern Dallas.
Ogburn: Capitalism doesn’t serve anyone; it is about making capital. It doesn’t serve anything but the companies and people making money. I think it should serve people. And corporations that serve their employees provide one way to serve the community. But, in America, you are free to make as much money you want.
There is a school of thought that says entrepreneurs should be free to go make money and their work will serve the rest of us. They will create jobs, produce products, and generate mobility. What do you think about that?
Grant: Before I started school, I worked for a company in Arizona whose sole focus was the guests we served. If you focus on serving the person, you have more buy-in to capitalism. People in southern Dallas are worried about putting food on the table. They don’t have time to think about capitalism. But if you find a way to serve them with your business, then you will get buy-in.
Gabby said education is the foundation. The purpose of this university is to give a low-cost, quality education to its students, many of whom come from southern Dallas. Then, they can go back into the community and change things. That is how you get more buy-in.
How do you think more people can get jobs with a good wage or capital to start a business?
Soto: Economic support would help. You don’t need a college degree to start a business. Investments by the private sector and people with capital would make a difference.
Ogburn: I started college right in the middle of the 2008 recession. There is a marked difference over the last 11 years. Millennials are overly educated and under employed. We are all trying to find a job, moving across the country to even get an adjunct teaching profession.
Is education oversold as a pathway to mobility?
Ogburn: It is oversaturated perhaps. Everybody is getting a degree because it is harder to get a good, stable job without one. You can get a good job with a trade school degree, but those alternatives are either not presented or presented in an elitist way: Oh, you don’t want to end up being a plumber.
I would like to add one more thought: Education is seen today as simply a tool to get a job and pay off a degree. I wish it could also be for learning’s sake.
Soto: It was expected from my family and teachers that we go to college. That is the immigrant family goal, to provide their families with an education. That is why they come to the United States.
My mom always wanted to open her own business. That inspired me. She found ways to sustain herself, even though college was never in her reach. We were pushed to get an education and become a lawyer or something where you make capital, although they also gave us the choice of not going to college if we had another passion.
For some, they may have a degree but they may lack the access to the same networks of people or information technologies as others.
Ogburn: You are right. That is a depressing fact. I came from a small town of 700 people, and only knew my father when I moved to Dallas. It is terrifying that you can get a degree, be loaded with debt, and not find a job. People with better connections and more money may have access to a network that helps them get a job.
Grant: Everyone knows that who you knows helps. I worked hard for two years before going to college. My supervisor vouched for me and helped me move up. The same is true in college. Professors can help you.
But you may not have the capital to keep going. I certainly had more money when I was working full-time, making a good check. My mom has helped me while I have been in college, and I have a work-study position here. But it is not as much as I was earning in Flagstaff and I wonder whether I will be able to get a good job.
Our counseling team at UNT Dallas focuses on helping us develop networks and getting to know people. They have many events to get us out there, to fellowship with others, as a way to help us get jobs.
Has social media, like LinkedIn, helped level the playing field in terms of networks?
Grant: Yes, social media has made networks more accessible. LinkedIn. Handshake. They help you find a job, an entry-level position, or an internship. They help you see opportunities. But you still have to hand out your card, introduce yourself, and let people see you and how you work.
Ogburn: Social media is leveling things. When I got out of high school 11 years ago, social media was a toy. Things have changed. I mentioned I came from a small town with little mobility. If you don’t have access to a larger community, family, or support system, you are likely to stay where you are. There were about three places for jobs if I had stayed there: the gas station and two restaurant-bars.
At least the initial introduction can be made online. Still, someone will want to see you in person.
Soto: Social media plays a big role. Social media, in fact, is a career for a lot of people just in itself. But it does fall back to your goals and morals. If you are dedicated to growing financially, you will find a way to do that. But social media opportunities like LinkedIn are a benefit.
We’ve been talking here about some of the challenges of making capitalism work for more Americans. But what gives you hope about the future?
Soto: What keeps me going is my family and my career goals. My family has always been supportive, always pushing me to continue my education. I aspire to attend law school and become an immigration lawyer because it is my background and I would love to eventually establish my own nonprofit organization. Knowing that there are people willing to help and that in a country like ours many things are possible gives me hope.
Ogburn: The cultural shift to inclusivity has grown rapidly, and not just through affirmative action and other minority- and disability-empowering programs. People also are asking who deserves to live a comfortable life. Is it only those who were born here? Is it the independently wealthy who worked their way up? Many lower- and middle-class Americans are angry that they are saddled with educational debt and yet lack basic necessities like health care. The growing awareness that all of us deserve the structure and opportunity to live a healthy and free life has rallied the masses, and from that will come change.