At a recent luncheon sponsored by the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, Executive Director Eduardo Argulo asked “How could the world’s most industrialized nation put a man on the moon forty years ago, but today have children who cannot read?” This question forces us to reconsider the reality of our society, in which equal opportunity, once regarded as essential to social mobility and democratic freedom, is routinely denied to millions of people.

Mr. Argulo’s organization fights for equity in our schools. It helps poor families, immigrants, and others to meet the educational needs of their children by teaching parents how to advocate for themselves within the system, and trains them to train each other. It partners with schools, community organizations, churches, and businesses to reduce dropout rates, promote literacy, provide access to computer technology, and present positive alternatives to gang life. The Coalition helps many families, but like similar organizations around the country, it is fighting an uphill battle in a social and economic system designed to promote even more inequality.

As a major study by the non-partisan Bertelsmann Foundation recently showed, when measuring indictors for social justice among the top 31 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 27, far behind most of Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan and slightly above Greece, Chile, and Mexico. Focusing on poverty prevention, access to education and the labor market, levels of social cohesion and discrimination, health care, and intergenerational justice, the United States fared poorly across the board. While we are good at generating great wealth, but not at distributing it, many countries, especially but not only in equally rich northern Europe, pursue social policies designed to promote greater equality. As a result, they also provide greater opportunity for upward social mobility. Contrary to the myth cherished by many Americans, moving up is more common in Scandinavian countries, Canada, and a number of others.

Capitalism generates inequality because it is a system in which only a small minority controls the levers of economic and political power. Disparities in wealth can be reduced, however, through political action that makes the economy serve the broader society rather than only a few. For decades the Republican and Democratic Parties pursued similar economic policies serving elite interests rather than the population at large. The only way to reverse the resulting disgraceful and deepening inequality is for people to organize in the streets, in their workplaces, and in new political parties to win sweeping changes that would create economic as well as political democracy. Otherwise the work of groups like the Coalition for Equality, admirable as it is, will truly be the labor of Sisyphus.