01/31/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

Time to Rethink Our Economy: We Won't Address Inequality Until We Address How We Judge Our Economy

Nationally, policymakers are finally discussing issues of income inequality and luckily, public debate has stepped back from criminalizing the poor and is instead looking at solutions like raising the minimum wage. As someone who has dedicated the last decade of her life representing the needs of the poor and working people in one of our nation's largest economies, I see this change in our public debate is long-overdue. However, if we are to truly address the growing gap between the mega wealthy and the rest of us, we must change how we judge the strength of our economy. We can't simply look at companies' profit margins and unemployment figures, but instead look at how well working people are doing as the judge of our nation's economic strength.

I live in Texas, where I defend the rights of some of the hardest working and most undervalued people in our economy -- construction workers -- who should be prospering with our rapid growth in Texas, but aren't. Most construction workers live below the poverty line even though they work full time. They frequently don't get paid for their work, are seriously injured on the job, and are more likely to die on the job in Texas then in any other state. For these workers, the Texas economic "miracle" has been a nightmare.

While Forbes and the Economist have diligently debated the cause Texas' record-breaking growth, there have been far fewer articles written assessing how well this growth has played out for the working people who are the backbone of the Lone Star State's economy. Governor Perry has gleefully traveled to California, Illinois and New York selling his formula for economic "prosperity": undermine the rights of workers, keep wages down, keep taxes low, and give out billions of the state's budget to big business. Sure, this formula can create growth, but the problem is that there isn't a full accounting of the actual costs and benefits to the average Texan.

Texas' economy may be booming, but it isn't benefiting everyone. While Texas' unemployment rate is lower then the nation's average, this hasn't necessarily translated into good jobs. The jobs Texas has added to the state's economy are overwhelmingly low-wage, dead end jobs, and today Texas is the nation's largest low-wage job creator. While Texas has grown in terms of jobs and output, today over a quarter of Texas children in the state live in poverty.

The state could be investing revenue from its growth back into the people of Texas, through education and job training to build a skilled and prosperous workforce, but instead it has chosen to do the opposite. 51 percent of the state's budget is dedicated to providing tax cuts and incentives to big business, meanwhile, Texas cut $5.4 billion from public education during the 2011-2013 biennium and now ranks 49th in per pupil spending on its students. Texas is also one of only two states that invest the bare minimum in job training at the state level to receive access to federal funds. The state is failing to ensure its residents are prepared for good jobs they can build careers out of. This massive investment in corporate welfare at the expense of the majority of Texans has created an economy with a growing gulf between the ultra wealthy and everyone else.

Across America, the "Texas miracle" is gaining clout. American capitalism tells people that if they work hard, they will be rewarded. That myth persists despite decades of evidence against it. The average American worker has been working harder but hasn't seen a real raise in wages in over thirty years. Despite workers today contributing almost twice as much to the economy as they did in 1973, their wages haven't risen at nearly the same rate, with the median wage of a full-time worker stalled at $16.07 an hour.

We won't be able to address inequality in this country until we change how we judge the strength of our economy. Without measuring economic performance against the impact that a high GDP and a low unemployment rate have on working conditions and workers' ability to provide for their families, we will continue to see a "Walmartization" of our economy. Companies like Wal-Mart can be seen as having laudable business models, even though their profit comes at the expense of taxpayers who are being forced to subsidize low-road practices that keep thousands of its workers living below the poverty line and dependent on public services to make ends meet.

When all we look at is unemployment and GDP, we have an impoverished understanding of our economy's actual performance when it comes to the things that matter most: our kids, our health, our job security, and our overall quality of life. And when we measure our success against this impoverished understanding of our economy's health, most of us end up impoverished as a result. So let's judge our economy not just by how many jobs are created, but the quality and wages of those jobs, and of the income disparity between the highest and lowest paid workers at a firm, in a state, and in the nation. If worker productivity increases, so should workers' wages. If companies are successful, workers should be as well. It's time to restructure our economy to work everyone, rather than squabble over piecemeal measures that won't actually address long-term structural inequality.