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The science of inequality: why people prefer unequal societies


Anyone looking for evidence that people have a natural aversion to inequality will find numerous laboratory studies that seemingly confirm their view. Studies have found “a universal desire for more equal pay”, “egalitarian motives in humans”, “egalitarianism in young children”, and that “equality trumps reciprocity”. A Google Scholar search for “inequality aversion” yields over 10,000 papers that bear on this topic.

When subjects in laboratory studies are asked to divide resources among unrelated individuals, they tend to divide them equally. If a previous situation has led to a pre-existing inequality, people will divide future resources unequally in order to correct or minimise the inequality between others. This bias is so powerful that subjects sometimes prefer equal outcomes in which everyone gets less overall to unequal outcomes where everyone gets more overall.

Furthermore, people appear to view the equal distribution of resources as a moral good; they express anger toward those who benefit from unequal distributions. This outrage is sufficiently strong that subjects will pay to punish unequal distributors. One study examining this across 15 diverse cultures found that members of all populations demonstrated some willingness to administer costly third-party punishment for unequal division of resources – although the magnitude of this punishment varied substantially across populations.

Studies of children between the ages of three and eight years find a similar equality bias. Three-year-olds divide resources equally among third parties, while six-year-olds show an even stronger commitment to equal distribution, insisting on throwing out extra resources rather than allowing them to be unequally distributed between two absent third parties.

In one study, six- to eight-year-olds were tasked with distributing erasers to two boys who had cleaned up their room. When there was an odd number of erasers, children insisted the experimenter should throw the extra eraser in the trash rather than establish an unequal division. They responded this way even if the recipients would never know that one of them received less, suggesting that children weren’t worried about the recipients’ feelings, but were opposed to creating the inequality even if none of the recipients knew about it.

Even more tellingly, children are just as likely to reject unequal distributions when they reflect generosity (the distributor gave up all her candies to the receiver) as when they reflect selfishness (the distributor kept all the candies for herself). This suggests that the rejections are specifically an aversion to inequality, rather than punishing selfishness.

‘A desire for unequality’

Given these findings, one might expect that when people are asked to distribute resources across a real-world group of people, they would choose an equal distribution of resources across all segments of society. But they do not.

A recent study by Norton and Ariely received well-deserved media attention as it showed that people both underestimate the amount of inequality in our society, and prefer a more egalitarian society to the one they think they live in.

The authors describe their studies as examining “disagreements about the optimal level of wealth inequality”, and report the finding of “a surprising level of consensus: all demographic groups – even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution, such as Republicans and the wealthy – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo”. An article by Ariely was titled: “Americans want to live in a much more equal country (they just don’t realize it)”.

These summaries are accurate: participants in these studies did prefer more equality than the current situation. But the results also suggest that they were not particularly worried about large inequalities. Instead, these subjects claimed that, in the perfect society, individuals in the top 20% should have more than three times as much money as individuals in the bottom 20%.

When they were given a forced choice between equal and unequal distributions of wealth, and told to assume that they would be randomly assigned to be anyone from the richest to the poorest person (that is, a “veil of ignorance”), over half of the subjects explicitly rejected the option of an equal distribution of wealth, preferring inequality. Thus, the data suggest that when it comes to real-world distributions of wealth, people have a preference for a certain amount of inequality.

This preference for inequality materialises in 16 other countries, across people on both the left and right of the political spectrum, and in teenagers. As Norton puts it: “People exhibit a desire for unequality – not too equal, but not too unequal.”

In fact, these data may actually underestimate people’s preferences for unequal distributions. One follow-up study contrasted Norton and Ariely’s question about the percentage of wealth that should correspond to each quintile of the American population with a question about what the average wealth should be in each quintile. The former question resulted in an ideal ratio of poorest to wealthiest of about 1:4 – but for the latter, the ratio jumped to 1:50. And when the connection between the two questions was explained to participants, a majority chose the higher inequality ratio as reflecting their actual beliefs for both measures.

A preference for fairness

How can this preference for inequality in the real world be reconciled with the strong preference for equality found in laboratory studies? We suggest this discrepancy arises because the laboratory findings do not, in fact, provide evidence that an aversion to inequality is driving the preference for equal distribution. Instead, these findings are all consistent with both a preference for equality and a preference for fairness – because the studies are designed so that the equal outcome is also the fair one.

This is because the recipients are indistinguishable with regard to considerations such as need and merit. Hence, whether subjects are sensitive to fairness or to equality, they will be inclined to distribute the goods equally. This idea is supported by numerous studies in which fairness is carefully distinguished from equality. These studies find that people choose fairness over equality.

Consider a situation with two individuals, identical in all relevant regards, where one gets $10 and the other nothing. This is plainly unequal, but is it fair? It can be, if the allocation was random. And adults consider it fair to use impartial procedures such as coin flips and lotteries when distributing many different kinds of resources.

Children have similar views. In the erasers-for-room-cleaning studies described above, if children are given a fair “spinner” to randomly choose who gets the extra eraser, they are happy to create inequality. One person getting two erasers and another getting one (or 10 and zero, for that matter) can be entirely fair and acceptable, although it is clearly not equal.

It follows, then, that if one believes that (a) people in the real world exhibit variation in effort, ability, moral deservingness and so on, and (b) a fair system takes these considerations into account, then a preference for fairness will dictate that one should prefer unequal outcomes in actual societies.

Tom Tyler uses a related argument to explain why there is not a stronger degree of public outrage in the face of economic inequality. He argues that Americans regard the American market system to be a fair procedure for wealth allocation, and, accordingly, believe strongly in the possibility of social mobility. On this view, then, people’s discontent about the current social situation will be better predicted by their beliefs about the unfairness of wealth allocation than by their beliefs about inequality.

Theories of relativity

People may have other motivations for preferring an unequal distribution of wealth in their society. One such consideration has little to do with an abstract desire for fairness, and instead reflects a desire to have more than others. Interestingly, these desires are not always for increasing one’s absolute amount, but are often for increasing one’s standing relative to others.

For example, studies of income and happiness have revealed that, once a basic level of wealth is achieved, relative wealth is more important for overall happiness. Similarly, a vast body of research in social psychology finds that people engage in constant comparison of themselves with others. Knowing that one’s income is much higher (or lower) than that of a neighbour has a substantial impact on happiness. As Gore Vidal put it: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

This motivation for “relative advantage” can motivate a desire for unequal distributions. Indeed, to achieve the warm glow associated with relative advantage, people are even willing to pay a cost themselves to reduce others’ incomes.

Even young children show this relative advantage-seeking behaviour. Five-year-olds often reject equal payouts of two prize tokens for themselves and two prize tokens for another child, and choose instead only one token for themselves, if that means that the other child will get none. The inequality associated with relative advantage is so appealing that it overrides both a desire for fairness and a desire for absolute gain.

A further motivation for inequality may come from the idea that inequality is necessary to motivate industriousness and allow for social mobility. For example, Norton argues that people prefer inequality because they see it as a motivating force that leads people to work harder and better, knowing that doing so can improve their station in life, and that of their children.

This belief entails a sort of “meritocratic mobility” – and such mobility is indeed a necessary condition for an unequal society to be a fair one. After all, a society lacking mobility is a society in which those born into poverty remain in poverty, regardless of their hard work and ingenuity.

Not surprisingly, then, a belief in meritocratic mobility is associated with more tolerance for inequality, as reflected in less discomfort with existing wealth inequality, less support for the redistribution of educational resources, and less willingness to support raising taxes on the rich.

From this perspective, cultural differences in expectations about mobility may account for differences in tolerance of inequality across cultures. For example, Americans might have an unreasonable tolerance for inequality in part because they tend to overestimate the extent of mobility in the United States – which is, in fact, lower than in places like Canada and most of Europe.

One reason for this lack of mobility is that the income distribution in the United States – the distance between the poorest and richest citizens – is much greater than in rival countries. Moving from the 10th percentile to the 90th percentile in Denmark requires a US$45,000 increase in income, but making the same jump in the United States would require an increase of US$93,000.

And the situation is not improving. While 92% of American children born in 1940 would go on to earn more than their parents, only 50% of children born in 1980 have done so.

Consequences of an unequal society

While concerns about fairness may motivate a preference for inequality, there are various countervailing psychological forces that may lead people to endorse equality. One of these is a worry about the consequences of an unequal society. That is, even if people have no problem with inequality itself, it might have negative consequences that people are motivated to avoid.

For one thing, as inequality increases, self-reported happiness diminishes, especially among the bottom 40% of income earners. One reason for this is that “relative disadvantage” has a larger negative impact on well-being than relative advantage has a positive impact. When people know where they stand in the overall income distribution, those on the lower end of the scale report less job satisfaction, while those on the higher end of the scale do not report any greater satisfaction.

This has negative effects for productivity too: workers who know they are on the low side of the distribution decrease their effort, but knowing that one is on the high end does not lead to an increase in effort.

However, it is not clear whether the corrosive effects of inequality on happiness are due to inequality per se, or due to the perception of unfair inequality. That is, it is an open question whether people who get less than others would suffer decreases in happiness and productivity if they believed they were in a fair system: one in which increased efforts on their part could lead to social mobility.

In the current economic environment in the United States and other wealthy nations, concerns about fairness happen to lead to a preference for reducing the current level of inequality. However, in various other societies across the world and across history (for example, when faced with the communist ideals of the former USSR), concerns about fairness lead to anger about too much equality. To understand these opposite drives, one needs to focus not on whether the system results in a relatively equal or unequal distribution of wealth, but whether it is viewed as fair.

What’s really bothering people?

As with most psychological claims of this sort, our proposal has, at best, indirect implications for public policy. Even if the average individual desires a somewhat unequal society, one might argue that people are mistaken in what they want. Perhaps people would actually be better off in a perfectly equal society – they just don’t know it.

We do see two implications of this work, however.

First, it’s clear that many people are misinformed about how well their society matches their ideals. They are wrong about how much inequality there is, believing the current situation to be much more equal than it actually is. Furthermore, Americans have exaggerated views about the extent of social mobility in the United States, and thus the extent to which the current American market system is a fair procedure for wealth allocation.

We have argued that views about fairness will be most predictive of discontent with economic inequality. Thus, public education on the actual current rate of mobility will help to ensure that people’s moral assessment of the world that they live in is grounded in the relevant facts.

Second, contemporary political discourse often blurs together various concerns that should be thought of as distinct. Worries about inequality are conflated with worries about poverty, an erosion of basic rights, and – as we have focused on here – unfairness.

If it’s true that inequality in itself isn’t really what is bothering people, then we might be better off by more carefully pulling apart these concerns, and shifting the focus to the problems that matter to us more.

The recognition that fairness and equality are different cannot merely be a footnote on empirical studies, and cannot be a rarely invoked piece of trivia in political conversations that wrestle with unfairness but frame the conversation in terms of equality.

Progress in the lab and in the real world will be facilitated by centring the discussion on exactly what people do care about – fairness – and not on what people do not care about – equality.

This is an edited version of the paper Why people prefer unequal societies, first published in Nature Human Behaviour on 7 April 2017. Dr Starmans is a postdoctoral associate in psychology, Dr Sheskin is a postdoctoral associate in cognitive science, and Dr Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology, all at Yale University. 

By : Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin and Paul Bloom
Date : May 4, 2017
Source : The Guardian

Posted in Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

Does Social Background Determine Life Chances In Europe?


Equality of opportunity and upward social mobility are important aspects of the European social model. Until quite recently concerns about rising inequalities were often countered by assurances about protecting social mobility, and the assertion that an individual’s status is mainly down to their work-ethic rather than the results of parental wealth so anyone can enjoy economic success and social progress in Europe. Recent evidence, however, shows a determinant role still for social background.

In the past upward social mobility relied on economic growth – the well-known “rising tide that raises most boats” concept – which meant better overall living standards: or ‘absolute mobility’.

Today’s Europe could not be more different. In times of sluggish growth, upward social mobility relies much more on a relative change in status: so called ‘relative social mobility’. For the first time in decades there is widespread concern that the younger adult generations will have fewer opportunities for upward mobility than today’s older ones. This concern reaches further and applies not only to those on low incomes but also to the middle classes, albeit with rather different characteristics in different EU member states. Widening income and social inequalities have necessitated a fresh look at equal opportunities and the transmission of (dis)advantage in Europe.

But are these concerns justified? What are the patterns of social mobility and how have they changed in recent decades? Eurofound’s research provides new evidence on social mobility and examines to what extent family background determines an individual’s prospects. It also maps out the most pronounced barriers to social mobility, and reviews relevant policies that promote equal opportunities.

The report looks at absolute social mobility or the extent of broader occupational change and societal progress as well as relative social mobility which measures chances of moving (up or down) between occupational classes.

The research also shows that it is important to examine patterns of social mobility for men and women separately as the overall country patterns hide gender differences. In several countries it is men, especially those of Generation X, that have started to experience decreasing levels of social mobility: this is the case in the UK but also in France, Sweden, Austria, Estonia and Bulgaria. In contrast, social mobility among men has increased in Germany and Spain as well as in those countries where overall levels have been high for both sexes (the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Belgium and Greece).

Analysis of the European Social Survey shows that there has been an improvement in relative social mobility over time and also a certain degree of convergence in relative mobility across Europe, but social mobility has not increased everywhere. Although it rose in most countries from the generation born before 1946 to the baby boomer generation (born 1946-1964), the picture after this is much more complex: in some countries social mobility has been decreasing (for example Austria, Bulgaria, France and notably Sweden and, to a lesser degree, Germany, Spain and Hungary) for the youngest generation. In several countries, meanwhile, social mobility has continued to increase across the board, for example Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands.

Although relatively few people in Europe are talking explicitly about ‘social mobility’, many are expressing practical and political doubts about a ‘fair society’ – one in which people have equal chances of enjoying good living standards and access to resources/services such as finance and childcare. Research confirms that social background continues to play a significant role, even in the most egalitarian member states. Social parameters begin before a child is born and continue with the transmission of (dis)advantage in a number of ways, such as parenting skills and social capital during a child’s early and school years and their educational attainment and non-cognitive skills by the time they reach working age. Access, availability and quality of public services are key in levelling the playing field, but there continues to be a vast difference in the provision of these services both between and within European countries.

Quality childcare can be an important factor in supporting social mobility from an early age but the cost associated with early education and childcare can be prohibitive in a number of countries. This extends to primary and secondary education as young people from affluent backgrounds can attend private schools, or live in the catchment area of high-performing schools. Cost barriers to quality education are more prevalent in countries with fee-paying schools such as the UK, Ireland and France. Even when there are no direct financial barriers, high-attaining schools are generally located in more affluent areas. Discrimination, nepotism and social networks prevail as important factors limiting social mobility, with women and people from minority backgrounds finding themselves most adversely affected. In terms of the labour market, women and people from minority backgrounds are still less likely to gain access to certain jobs. On top of discrimination, nepotism and social networks still clearly advantage certain groups of people in accessing specific occupations in many EU countries.

The place where someone lives can also have a profound impact on people’s chances of upward mobility. Increased residential and regional segregation, mainly by income or economic situation, has become a feature of most urban areas in the majority of member states. Factors such as distance from employers and universities can have a substantial impact via transport and housing costs on students’ aspirations and progression routes.

So what can policy-makers do to promote upward social mobility? When we look at equal opportunity initiatives taken in countries we can see that quality of teaching and access to education is important. Within childcare and early education policies efforts have been made to improve curriculum quality and ease access, to pay attention to vulnerable groups and even to make childcare mandatory. Similarly, in mainstream education more attention has been paid to teaching quality, particularly in relation to vocational education and training. Policy-makers have also started to recognise the importance of good relations between school and family and have put in place programmes aimed at improving the family environment and parenting skills as well as those aimed at promoting more inclusive environments, including moving away from segregated schools.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this new research is that we need to think more holistically from a life-cycle perspective when designing policies for improving equal opportunities and promoting upward social mobility. These ideally should start before birth and extend through childcare and school years into working life. This could also help to address widespread feelings of social exclusion and injustice now, especially when deep-rooted structural changes have contributed to widening inequalities in European countries.

Anna Ludwinek is a Research Manager in the Social Policies unit at Eurofound. Since joining Eurofound in 2008, she has worked on issues related to youth, youth transitions and social inclusion, as well as on topics around migration and integration. At present, she coordinates work on social mobility and inequalities and is an activity coordinator for the area of public services. Other areas of work include reintegration of long-term excluded groups into the labour market and the impact of digitalisation on social services. Previously, she spent six years as a public affairs executive for a European association representing the medical technology industry. She holds an MA in Political Science and a BA in International Relations and MA in Social Applied Research from Trinity College Dublin.


Anna Ludwinek is a Research Manager in the Social Policies unit at Eurofound. Since joining Eurofound in 2008, she has worked on issues related to youth, youth transitions and social inclusion, as well as on topics around migration and integration. At present, she coordinates work on social mobility and inequalities and is an activity coordinator for the area of public services. Other areas of work include reintegration of long-term excluded groups into the labour market and the impact of digitalisation on social services. Previously, she spent six years as a public affairs executive for a European association representing the medical technology industry. She holds an MA in Political Science and a BA in International Relations and MA in Social Applied Research from Trinity College Dublin.


By : Anna Ludwenik
Date : April 26, 2017
Source : Social Europe

Posted in Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

IU sociologist’s study shows new evidence on racial inequality


Black girls experience greater racial inequality in school discipline than black boys, according to a recent study by an IU sociologist.

Brea Perry, associate professor of sociology, has been studying the topic for about five years and coauthored a paper with Ed Morris, a sociologist from the University of Kentucky.

The paper, titled “Girls Behaving Badly? Race, Gender and Subjective Evaluation in Discipline of African American Girls,” appears in the April 2017 issue of Sociology of Education.

The paper details Morris and Perry’s study, which analyzed data from middle and high school students from 2007 to 2011 in a large district of Kentucky. The researchers worked with the Children’s Law Center in Kentucky to get the data, which is something many school districts try to keep private, Perry said.

“The district we worked with legitimately wanted to change things for the better,” Perry said. “There’s a crisis in our country. School discipline rates are creating and exacerbating other social inequalities.”

Perry and her associate looked at the number of referrals for different demographic groups instead of only looking at suspensions or expulsions, which is where many studies are based.

Expulsions are relatively rare, so to look at specific gender and racial groups the researchers needed a larger set of data. In addition, they were interested in looking at lower-level offenses that could be gateways to suspensions and expulsions.

“If we were to only use suspensions, we would have missed things like dress code violations and disruptive behaviors,” Perry said. “Students are less likely to get a suspension in those cases.”

The study showed black girls were largely referred for discipline for disruptive behavior, dress code violations and other offenses that were largely subjective. In these cases, there is more discretion on the part of teachers of whether to ignore it, give them a referral or address it in a different way, Perry said.

At an absolute level, black boys are more likely to be suspended or receive a referral than any other group, Perry said. But if you compare black girls to white girls, the racial disparity is actually larger. So, black girls are being discriminated against based on race more frequently than black boys, Perry said.

“This study in particular actually garners some attention for black girls,” Perry said. “Even though we’re now seeing a decrease in overall rates of suspension, we still see large racial and gender disparities. Those aren’t going away and we’re not addressing those disparities.”

The particular district used in the study has a higher proportion of black students and a lower proportion of Latino students. The numbers aren’t representative of all areas of the country, but the rates of exclusionary discipline match the national average. Perry said this gave them no reason to believe the area was atypical in any way.

“We think you can generalize what we’re finding to other districts,” Perry said.

Now that this study is completed, Perry is going on to study disparities in special education with a grant from the Spencer Foundation.


By : Alison Graham
Date : May 17, 2017
Source : Indiana Daily Student

Posted in Education, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

Universal childcare can break circle of poverty


Anna Borg, director of the University of Malta’s Centre for Labour Studies, said universal childcare can mitigate social inequalities and break the circle of poverty

Both mainstream parties are proposing an extension of childcare services but with one major difference, the PN wants this to be universal.

Labour, which introduced free childcare in 2014, says this should be conditional on parents having gainful employment. Education minister Evarist Bartolo has said it would be unjust to extend childcare when working parents contribute to the economy through their taxes, and said this risked re-introducing a mentality of reliance on social benefits.

But anti-poverty campaigners insist free childcare should also be available to the poor and the unemployed.

When the free childcare services were introduced in 2014 they were intended to bridge the gender employment gap by enabling more women to enter gainful employment.

But Anna Borg, director of the University of Malta’s Centre for Labour Studies, said universal childcare can mitigate social inequalities and break the circle of poverty.

Malta has the biggest gender employment gaps in the EU, with 81.4% of men in employment against 53.6% of women (aged 20-64), leading to a gap of 27.8%. This contrasts sharply with the gap in female and male employment rates in Finland, which gap amounts to just 2.1%.

While acknowledging that the gender employment gap is a complex one and does not depend solely on whether free childcare is available, Borg noted that between 2008 and 2016 there has been a positive increase in female participation in all years.

However, Borg said that the change since childcare was introduced for working families was below the average registered over the past 10 years.

“Whilst there was a positive increase in all years, the average annual increase during this period (2008-2016) amounted to 1.98%. Free childcare was introduced in Malta in April 2014, and when looking at the yearly increase after that, in 2015 and 2016, the change was actually below the average increase registered over the whole period,” she said.

When looking specifically at the three years before the introduction of free childcare, the increase in those years was higher than the average. On the other hand, the change in 2015 was 1.6 and 1.9 in 2016 over 2015.

Asked what effect would an extension of a free childcare scheme to poor, unemployed parents have on the labour market, Borg said childcare, “should be first and foremost about children and not their parents, like school and a good education is totally geared for children and we never ask for the employment status of parents before allowing three-years olds to get into free kindergartens.”

“So why should we discriminate against babies and children under three when we offer free education up to university level? This is insane because the free childcare scheme is about breaking the circle of poverty and ensuring that those children who need it most can access it, regardless of the employment status of their parents.”

Studies have shown that quality childcare minimises the number of early school leavers and facilitates social mobility later on in life and Borg said that since the introduction of the new scheme in 2014, the issue of cost and affordability has been resolved since the service is being provided mainly free of charge to working parents.

“This allows them a better choice of childcare, independent of their income, and in ways has created more social cohesion among eligible parents. However, there is a negative flipside in that children coming from the most deprived or disadvantaged households, such as families afflicted with mental health, drug abuse or other social problems, risk being left out of the system.”

Borg said that in such households, it is more difficult to have both parents (or the single parent) in the formal labour market or following educational courses at diploma or degree level.

“Hence, there is a high risk that they would not be able to meet the eligible criteria if they are afflicted with such problems. This raises immediate concerns of social cohesion, for it is a known fact that apart from increasing maternal employment rates, quality childcare can mitigate social inequalities in early life.”

Moreover, Borg said, the children most likely to benefit from quality childcare are those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

She added that childcare can provide a protective role for children and helps to address in part the children’s living conditions in at-risk households with outcomes felt at later stages by minimising the number of early school leavers and facilitating social mobility.

“Childcare centres can also play a role in flagging up neglect and abuse of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hence as it stands, the eligibility criteria of the free childcare scheme in Malta may be excluding the most vulnerable children,” Borg said.

By : Jurgen Balzan
Date : May 23, 2017
Source : Malta Today

Posted in Health, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

New Book : The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills


Author : David A. Ansell, MD
Pages : 240 pages
Publisher : The University of Chicago Press
Published : April 2017

Source : http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo25081418.html
We hear plenty about the widening income gap between the rich and the poor in America and about the expanding distance separating the haves and the have-nots. But when detailing the many things that the poor have not, we often overlook the most critical—their health. The poor die sooner. Blacks die sooner. And poor urban blacks die sooner than almost all other Americans. In nearly four decades as a doctor at hospitals serving some of the poorest communities in Chicago, David Ansell has witnessed firsthand the lives behind these devastating statistics. In The Death Gap, he gives a grim survey of these realities, drawn from observations and stories of his patients.

While the contrasts and disparities among Chicago’s communities are particularly stark, the death gap is truly a nationwide epidemic—as Ansell shows, there is a thirty-five-year difference in life expectancy between the healthiest and wealthiest and the poorest and sickest American neighborhoods. If you are poor, where you live in America can dictate when you die. It doesn’t need to be this way; such divisions are not inevitable. Ansell calls out the social and cultural arguments that have been raised as ways of explaining or excusing these gaps, and he lays bare the structural violence—the racism, economic exploitation, and discrimination—that is really to blame. Inequality is a disease, Ansell argues, and we need to treat and eradicate it as we would any major illness. To do so, he outlines a vision that will provide the foundation for a healthier nation—for all.

Inequality is all around us, and often the distance between high and low life expectancy can be a matter of just a few blocks. But geography need not be destiny, urges Ansell. In The Death Gap he shows us how we can face this national health crisis head-on and take action against the circumstances that rob people of their dignity and their lives.



Beryl Satter, author of Family Properties: How the Struggle over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America

“Ansell does a magnificent job of uncovering the myriad ways in which structural racism — in housing, employment, education, and health care, for a start — creates unacceptable ‘death gaps’ or disparities in life expectancy that are preventable and therefore morally unacceptable. This moving study delivers the harsh truth about the ways that racism infects our nation’s health care system, and it does so with passion and eloquence. One comes away from Death Gap feeling inspired to act, and that’s a rare and wonderful accomplishment.”

Harold Pollack, University of Chicago

“The Death Gap describes critical health inequalities in the United States, which are drawn from Ansell’s gripping first-person experiences as a leading practitioner operating in Chicago’s medical safety net. He reveals the profound inequalities, particularly racial inequalities, that generate tremendous differences in lifespan and well-being across neighborhoods, and he provides powerful patient anecdotes that provide a human face to otherwise abstract challenges.”

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Divided We Fall


The Founders knew that economic inequality would destroy America’s democracy. So why can’t the Constitution save us?

It only took a week after Donald Trump’s inauguration before Democrats and the media began to warn that our democracy faces a grave and potentially fatal threat. On the second weekend of Trump’s presidency, when customs officials began enforcing his hastily imposed ban on travel from Muslim nations, Senator Cory Booker dashed out to Dulles Airport and told a crowd of protesters that the American rule of law was under assault. “I believe it’s a constitutional crisis,” Booker declared. Two days later, when Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to enforce the ban, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer practically had the question, “Are we on the verge of a constitutional crisis?” on auto-repeat. And when Trump blasted the “so-called judge” who overturned the travel ban, Senator Richard Blumenthal wasted no time in predicting the worst: “We’re careening, literally, toward a constitutional crisis.”

We weren’t. The ban may have been illegal, and deeply un-American, but its issuance alone didn’t present an existential threat to the republic. Lawyers sprang into action, and federal judges halted the ban’s enforcement. Even the president’s tweeted response indicated that the Constitution was still in working order: “SEE YOU IN COURT.”

The alarm over the travel ban reflected the wider fear that many Americans have felt ever since Trump was elected. Indeed, the mere fact of his victory struck many on the left as nothing short of a national emergency—a threat to the very nature of American democracy. But in their vigilance, many politicians and pundits are missing a deeper and more profound peril. We aren’t “careening” toward a constitutional crisis, as Senator Blumenthal feared. We’ve been sinking into one for years—and the Constitution isn’t designed to get us out of it.

Long before Trump came along, America was already mired in a constitutional crisis—one that crept up on us gradually, as historical transformations always do. The reason is simple: Our Constitution wasn’t built for a country with massive economic inequality and deeply entrenched political divisions. The three times in our history when the republic has faced a threat to its very existence—the Civil War, the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, and the present moment—the crisis arose because America had evolved in ways the Founders could only dimly imagine. In each instance, the social conditions of the country no longer matched the Constitution.

Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the crisis we now face. It is written, in fact, into the very fabric of our society. And the only way we’ll avert the disintegration of our political system—as Lincoln and the abolitionists did in their day, and the Roosevelts and the progressives did in theirs—is first to understand its origins.

If you ask many Americans today, they’ll tell you exactly who the Founding Fathers were: a pack of rich white men who rigged the Constitution to serve their own financial and political interests. Sure, they talked like radical egalitarians. But they also denied women the vote, slapped a specific numeric value on the political worth of slaves, and enshrined human bondage as wholly compatible with a democracy founded on “unalienable rights.”

That’s true enough. But it’s easy to forget, at the historical distance that separates us from the eighteenth century, that America in its founding era was, in the relative terms of the time, the most economically equal place on Earth. Unlike their revolutionary counterparts in France, the Founders didn’t have to account for—or break from—centuries of entrenched wealth and property. There was no hereditary nobility in America. No property rules that concentrated wealth. No history of feudalism. Instead, there were vast lands to the West, which meant that any white man could work his way into the middle class. Even William Manning, one of America’s first great champions of “the many” versus “the few,” acknowledged in 1799, “We are on an equality as to property [compared] to what they are in the old countries.”

The Founders shaped their new republic around its economic parity. Nothing short of “equality of property,” declared Noah Webster, could ensure the social stability and national solidarity that any constitutional system needs to function properly. This, Webster added, was “the very soul of a republic.” Our Constitution, in short, was literally founded on an egalitarian distribution of wealth. Without property being “pretty equally divided,” the anti-federalist Samuel Bryan warned during ratification, “the nature of the government is changed, and an aristocracy, monarchy, or despotism will rise on its ruin.”

For most of the world’s constitutional history, property had been anything but “pretty equally divided.” Political systems were often created to accommodate economic inequality, and to ward off catastrophic clashes between the rich and poor; social stability was achieved, at least theoretically, by giving each class a share in governance. Think, for instance, of Britain’s House of Lords (for the rich) and House of Commons (for the masses) or Rome’s tribune of the plebs, which allowed poor citizens to veto the decisions of the patrician senators.

Our Constitution, by contrast, made no such accommodations to economic inequality. There are no wealth requirements for U.S. senators, and no cap on wealth for admission to the House. In fact, there are no provisions in our constitutional structure—not one—that account for differences in economic class. This represented an extraordinary transformation in the way countries govern themselves. Instead of drafting a constitution to resolve divisions created by wealth and poverty, the Founders asserted that all men were created equal, and established a government that depended on all men remaining economic equals.

The Founders understood full well that if severe economic inequality emerged, their democratic experiment would collapse. The rich would gradually take over the government, passing laws to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else. When America’s wealthy began to “plunder the poor,” a Virginia politician warned in 1814, it would be “slow and legal.” Sooner or later, the masses would respond—but not through a violent uprising. Instead, they would turn to a figure who would know how to manipulate their resentments. Of “those men who have overturned the liberty of republics,” Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist Papers, “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

But in preindustrial America, the onset of mass inequality—and the social and political divisions that grow from it—was only a distant possibility. In a society with relative equality, the only “checks and balances” needed were between three separate—and equal—branches of government. “The Founding Fathers devised a scheme to deal with conflict,” the political scientist Louis Hartz once observed, “that could only survive in a land of solidarity.”

“Solidarity,” of course, is also a relative term, and a fragile foundation on which to build a national government. Throughout the nineteenth century, as the regional divide over slavery grew, some Americans came to believe that the only solution was to alter the Constitution to account for the increasingly deep fractures—to find an American equivalent of the Lords and Commons. In the buildup to the Civil War, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina proposed splitting the presidency in two: one president from the North, one from the South. The co-presidents would have to agree before any law could take effect. “Nothing short of this,” he warned, “could restore harmony and tranquility to the union.”

The Civil War, our greatest constitutional crisis, stemmed directly from the Founders’ failure to create a framework for forging solidarity out of division. And in the decades after the war’s brutal resolution, sweeping economic changes would lead to a second crisis—rooted in another stark social divide—at the turn of the twentieth century. With industrialization, urbanization, the closing of the frontier, and the shift from artisanal and agricultural work to wage labor in factories, the Constitution once again strained at its seams.

James Madison, for one, had foreseen that the republic would confront such challenges. In 1788, he estimated that America had 25 years before the population density across the entire country would match that of the Eastern states. By 1829, thanks to westward expansion, he’d revised his estimate: Within a century, Madison thought, the mass of Americans would be “reduced by a competition for employment to wages which would afford them the bare necessities of life.” As the “proportion being without property” increased, the system would have to be overhauled for representative democracy to survive. “The institutions and laws of the country must be adapted,” Madison wrote, “and it will require for the task all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.”

When the Industrial Age plunged America into its second constitutional crisis, wise patriots answered Madison’s call. From the 1890s to the 1930s, populists, progressives, and New Dealers alleviated the strain on our system by passing a combination of new laws and constitutional amendments. Anti-trust measures broke up the concentration of economic power. Working hours were regulated, and labor unions offset the power of employers. The Constitution was amended to establish a progressive income tax, helping redistribute superconcentrated wealth. The people’s voting power was expanded by requiring the direct election of U.S. senators, permitting citizens to float ballot initiatives to change laws by popular vote, and extending the franchise to women. These reforms were all designed to realign economic and political power—to give a fair measure of it back to the people. Only then could the Constitution work again as intended.

By the 1960s, the progressive patriots had largely succeeded. This was the age of the Great Compression: The gross domestic product soared, wages rose, and the middle class boomed. Not since the founding era had America seen such economic equality. At the same time, progressives took aim at social divisions, ending Jim Crow segregation and beginning to ensure equal rights for women, gays, and lesbians, and the disabled. As the 1970s dawned, the great American experiment faced a new challenge: Could the republic sustain an equal economy and an inclusive social community?

This time, however, our leaders failed us. Instead of promoting policies to continue broad-based economic growth, they passed tax breaks for the wealthy and gutted regulations that protected workers and consumers. Rather than work toward social harmony, they took advantage of growing economic anxieties and used dog-whistle politics to stir racial resentments. And if you couldn’t blame “those people” for your problems, you could always blame the government, which Ronald Reagan so memorably cast in his first inaugural address as “not the solution,” but “the problem.”

As much as liberals would like to chalk up this disastrous state of affairs to white racism, or pin it to the rise of reactionary conservatism, Democrats have done their part to contribute to the crisis. For decades, many Democrats have gone along with economic reforms that aided the rich, and they have increasingly demonized working-class whites as ignoramuses, contributing to a destructive tit for tat that only keeps escalating.

By neglecting the economic conditions necessary to sustain our republic, we’ve fueled a slow-burning constitutional crisis. As a battery of studies over the past decade have shown, the rich now dominate our system of governance. They participate more at every stage of the political process—from meeting candidates, to donating to their campaigns, to voting and running for office. Some scholars argue that the majority’s views now have zero impact on public policy; all is dictated by the interests of wealthy elites. It’s no wonder that trust in government has sunk to all-time lows.

Just as the Founders feared, our sense of national solidarity could not survive the rise of economic inequality. We have divided ourselves geographically, with liberals amassing in urban areas and blue states, and conservatives in rural and red. We get our news from sources that reflect our partisan assumptions, and we make our political decisions based on fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at democracy. We may be governed by a single Constitution, but we are becoming, for all intents and purposes, two countries.

The terrifying thing is that all these transformations—economic, political, and social—make reform even more difficult to achieve. As the wealthy rig the system in their favor, it gets harder to tax the rich, bust up monopolies, help working families, and reduce the influence of money in our politics. As social divisions become more entrenched, it becomes easier to keep everyone divided through fearmongering and scapegoating. To function properly, the Constitution requires equality and solidarity—and once those are gone, it contains no mechanism to restore them.

It would be nice to think that our current crisis could be solved by getting rid of President Trump. But if he were driven from office and forced into exile at Mar-a-Lago, the conditions that created the crisis would still be with us. There’s no quick fix to a problem that has been half a century in the making.

Thanks to the Constitution’s checks and balances, a president alone can’t fix the republic any more than he can destroy it. Only a new surge of progressive patriotism, modeled on the one that took hold a century ago, can save our democracy. Like the wise patriots of the Gilded Age, the progressive patriots of the twenty-first century will have to rebuild the bedrock of economic opportunity, stone by stone: a fair tax system, tougher financial regulations, more investments in education and infrastructure. The foundations of participatory democracy must also be rebuilt, by liberalizing election laws and enabling more Americans to vote. Only then can we hope to rediscover a sense of common purpose that the Founding Fathers knew was a prerequisite for their experiment to succeed.

It sounds impossible, of course. Donald Trump’s in the White House. Anti-government, trickle-down conservatives dominate Congress, the courts, and most state legislatures. How can we even dream about reversing such entrenched inequality, or of healing our seemingly bottomless social rifts?

Our hope rests partly in our history. Hard as it is to believe, we have been here before. We’ve stared into a dark future in which the Constitution no longer functions, in which democracy is replaced by oligarchy or tyranny. But wise patriots found a way to adapt. It took more than one election, one candidate, one party. A crisis decades in the making will take decades to resolve.

Our greatest hope, ironically, rests in the very ferocity of our political climate. Trump wasn’t elected because conservative voters are unaware that America is in a mortal crisis. A socialist like Bernie Sanders didn’t almost upend the Democratic establishment because liberals felt that everything was fine under President Obama. The American people might not think of what we’re experiencing as a “constitutional crisis,” but they understand what their leaders have failed to recognize: The system does not work anymore. Something radical has to happen. This knowledge, above all, is one thing that the citizens of our deeply divided country still have in common.


Ganesh Sitaraman is an associate professor at Vanderbilt Law School and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.


By            :             Ganesh Sitaraman

Date         :             April 10, 2017

Source     :             New Republic


Posted in Latest Post, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

Politics Of Respectability And A Dragged Passenger


The politics of respectability, that elusive set of guidelines that dictate how racialized Americans ought to conduct themselves in public, were complicated this week when a 69-year-old Asian-American doctor was forcibly dragged off a United Airlines flight.

The video of Dr. David Dao’s body being hauled off the plane provoked international outrage, especially from Asian-Americans, but some argued that race had nothing to do with the incident — that the same level of outrage would have followed regardless of the passenger’s race.

Two questions immediately come to my mind.

First, would this have happened to Dao if he was white? The politics of respectability would render a senior, white male doctor as worthy of deference and respect. Second, would cries of outrage have been as loud if the man dragged off the plane was African-American? The surge in violence against black people in the last decade, and the generalized indifference to it until recently, suggests that that would be unlikely.

In Dao, Asian-Americans like me could identify their own elderly fathers, and we shuddered at the thought that our family members could have been victimized in the same horrific manner.

But I doubt that non-Asian-Americans saw their fathers in Dao. Instead, what they may have seen is the personification of an Asian-American trope — the model minority. As an Asian-American doctor, Dao embodies the popular narrative that Asian Americans are highly educated, hard-working, committed, successful and deserving.

This facile veneer, however, obscures more than it clarifies about Asian-Americans.

Comprised of 24 detailed origins, Asian-Americans exhibit more socioeconomic diversity than any other U.S. racial group. Take educational attainment for example. On the high end of the spectrum are Asian Indians, Chinese, and Koreans who exhibit extraordinarily high levels of education, and graduate from college at higher rates than whites. At the other extreme are Asian ethnic groups like Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong, who have higher high school dropout rates than African-Americans and Latinos. Forty percent of Hmong-Americans do not graduate from high school. In addition, the latter Asian ethnic groups have higher poverty rates and higher levels of welfare receipt than the national average.

Moreover, at 35 percent, Asian-Americans have one of the highest rates of “limited English proficiency” (LEP) among all U.S. groups, and are on par with Latinos. This figure, however, masks the heterogeneity among Asian-Americans; 53 percent of Vietnamese are LEP, as are 46 percent of Chinese, and 45 percent of Koreans and Thai. By contrast, rates of LEP are as low as 22 percent among Asian Indians and Filipinos.

These differences are critical because they affect life outcomes like health, earnings, and civic participation, including voting. The model minority trope, however, masks these differences and erases the ethnic, economic, and social diversity among Asian-Americans. More importantly, the model minority myth creates an unofficial value pyramid with the most educated, affluent and successful Asian-Americans at the very top.

So, how, exactly can the politics of respectability and diversity among Asian-Americans help us understand our collective outrage of United’s inexcusable treatment of Dao?

In early news reports of this story, there was no mention of Dao’s race or ethnicity. As the video began to circulate, however, one could easily discern that the passenger was Asian-American, and based on first sight, people assumed that he was Chinese-American. That Dao is a Vietnamese refugee did not diminish the outcry, nor did it change our view that he is deserving of our outrage, empathy and support. But would it change if Dao was Hmong, whose group position in the unofficial value hierarchy is lower than that of Chinese and Vietnamese?

Moreover, would we have been just as outraged and empathetic if Dao were African-American or a recent immigrant from South America?

Imagine the possibility if we were just as vociferous about the recent videotaped deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers, or the forced deportation of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record who are separated from their U.S.-born children. Indeed, there is outrage from certain segments of the population, but nothing that matches the immediate, unwavering, and uniform support for Dao. Even when the media began a smear campaign against him, the public rejected it as irrelevant.

Without question, Dao deserves our outrage, empathy, and support, and kudos to the masses that demanded it. But just as deserving are individuals of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, ages, and socioeconomic statuses who lack the protection of visible status markers that deny them the same degree of public respectability.

Jennifer Lee is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine.


By            :               Jennifer Lee

Date         :               April 14, 2017

Source     :               NPR


Posted in Latest Post, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

What Inequality Doesn’t Mean


Is inequality a death sentence for the American republic? Two recent books vigorously argue both sides of the case—with the naysayer pulling out ahead.

Economic inequality is widely cited as the seedbed of social ills, sprouting plutocracy and corruption, stunting economic mobility, and suffocating the middle class. On this point, academic research and progressive political commentary regularly reinforce each other, a unanimity that conveys the impression of a rigorous scientific consensus. Adding to this collective refrain, Ganesh Sitaraman’s The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic, analyzes the sociopolitical consequences of inequality from an historical perspective, categorizing economic equality as a constitutional issue.

Tracing concerns about inequality from ancient Greece to 21st-century America, Sitaraman’s historical narrative creates an intellectual backdrop for his empirical assessment of the impending danger expressed in the book’s title. A law professor at Vanderbilt University and one-time policy director for Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sitaraman’s interpretation of the perils of inequality is prompted by progressive political leanings. His main thesis links increasing economic inequality since the 1970s to a shrinking middle class, which threatens to undermine the political foundations of democratic society. A large middle class is seen as a political counterforce to the wealthy elite, who would otherwise run roughshod over the poor. The adverse effects of heightened inequality and a declining middle class can be summed up in a blunt equation: As concentrated wealth procures increasing political power, plutocracy displaces democracy.

Despite the popular perception that the middle class is being eroded by inequality, a careful examination of the empirical evidence is warranted for several reasons: The middle class can be defined in various ways; an accurate estimate of the degree of erosion is required to make a reasonable determination of the threat posed to the republic; and it is equally important to know where those ousted from the middle class end up.

Social scientists typically gauge middle-class status by income, education, and occupation, but the range of income, levels of education, and types of occupation vary. Recognizing that there are different conceptions of the middle class, Sitaraman initially defines them as “the group of people who aren’t extremely rich or extremely poor.” He then offers the further clarification that being middle class means “you have enough spending money to provide for yourself and your family without living hand to mouth, but not enough to guarantee their future.” These vague calibrations raise many doubts as to how one can possibly draw intelligible conclusions about who is in the middle class, whether the size of this group is actually shrinking, and, if so, where those being squeezed out land.

As evidence of the decline, Sitaraman refers to various qualitative case studies that offer an emotionally compelling portrayal of the struggles and distress in the daily lives of low-income families. Although such gripping stories tend to magnify the popular perception of a waning middle class, they are insufficient to sustain a critical generalization about the entire population. If the decline of the middle class is to be taken as a serious problem, we should at least have some accounting of its magnitude and results.

Toward the end of the book, Sitaraman invokes a firmer definition, pegging the collapse of the middle class to the Pew Research Center’s analysis, which classifies the middle class as those earning $42,000 to $126,000. According to this definition the Pew study found that, amid a growing population, the proportion of adults in the middle class declined by 11 percent between 1971 and 2015. About two-thirds of this decline is accounted for by a proportional increase among those in the upper-class income bracket, while the other third represents an expansion of those in the low-income range. It is not immediately self-evident how such a disproportionate growth of people in the upper-income bracket compared to the relatively small increase of those in the lower-income category threatens the future of the republic.

Moreover, when interpreting economic data about the shrinking middle class one should bear in mind that there are different ways to measure income. The Pew findings are based on household incomes before subtracting taxes and excluding the cash value of social transfers such as food stamps and subsidized housing. This is a relatively weak indicator of the financial resources families actually have to live on, particularly low-income households that tend to receive a broad package of social transfers that has increased over six-fold since the 1960s. In 2009, Federal expenditures on cash and in-kind transfers for low-income households amounted to approximately $16,000 per person—a sum that, if included in the measures of class and inequality, would diminish the magnitude of both the purported decline of the middle class and the increase in income inequality.

In addition to shrinking the middle class, Sitaraman claims that increasing inequality retards economic mobility. As evidence he relies on Alan Kruegar’s highly publicized “Great Gatsby Curve,” a small graph depicting a simplistic, two-variable relationship between income inequality and intergenerational mobility based on a sample of ten countries. Inequality rises as the levels of mobility decline over the ten countries, among which the United States had the highest level of inequality and next-to-lowest level of economic mobility. The academic authority conferred on this simple correlation derived from a very small sample of countries exemplifies a common tendency to endorse statistics one is predisposed to believe, particularly when they support prevailing assumptions about inequality. A closer examination of the data used to construct the Gatsby Curve reveals that the U.S. mobility score was selected from a body of research reporting 28 different findings; among these the mobility rate chosen to represent the United States was well below the average for the 28 studies and was based on an analysis of a relatively small sample of several hundred observations.

An entirely different story emerges from the more recent findings of a team of Berkeley and Harvard economists who analyzed 50 million tax returns in what is arguably the most extensive and rigorous study to date. Their research offers persuasive evidence that despite the increase in inequality, the rate of social mobility in the United States has not changed appreciably since at least 1971. According to the mobility rates found in this study, the United States should have had the fourth-highest level of mobility among the ten countries in the Great Gatsby Curve, which would have flattened out the curve considerably.

The claim that increasing economic inequality generates increasing political inequality, with wealthy elites coming to exercise control over public decision-making, is a common assertion that also eludes empirical validation. Sitaraman’s analysis of “ elites” who wield decisive political influence refers variously of the top 1 percent, business interest groups, the well-to-do, the affluent, and the top 10 percent.

It is indeed true that wealthy people have influence, and several serious studies in recent years attest to aspects of that influence. It would be naive to imagine that money is of little importance in politics, if for no other reason than so much of it is spent lubricating the electoral and policymaking processes ($6 billion on Federal elections alone in 2012). Democracy is an abrasive business intensified by the chaotic American style of interest-group politics, which involves 12,000 registered lobbyists who spent $3.2 billion plying their trade in 2014. In addition to the billionaires on both sides of the aisle (such as the Koch brothers and George Soros), as well as those who typically have given to both sides (such as Donald Trump), the interest-group legions include the 37 million-member AARP, the American Medical Association, public employee unions (six of which were among the 15 largest donors to national campaigns between 1989 and 2012as well numerous corporate interests.

So, of course, money counts. On this issue, Sitaraman cites the findings of Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens’s award-winning study, which show a clear relationship between affluence and political influence.1 When examining this relationship over time, however, the data do not suggest that a rising degree of economic inequality has been associated with increasing political inequality. And the affluent respondents referred to in this study were a sample of citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution who earned about $135,000 a year—a substantial sum in 2010, but hardly enough to qualify as the extremely rich elite.

Sitaraman’s claim notwithstanding, there is no persuasive evidence that an increasing level of income inequality has a direct bearing on the degree of political power wielded by the elites. As a comprehensive review of the research by the American Political Science Association Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy cautiously concludes, “there is little evidence of a direct effect of rising economic inequality on widening political disparities.”2

In stark contrast to The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, Edward Conard’s The Upside of Inequality: How Good Intentions Undermine the Middle Class introduces an alternative perspective, which challenges the prevailing assumptions that animate progressive interpretations of inequality. With an iconoclastic unraveling of empirical measures, Conard’s reading of the evidence calls into question Sitaraman’s assessment of the scale and dire consequences of inequality on almost every front.

Closely examining how the 11 percent decline of middle-income families was distributed between the upper- and lower-income categories, he points out that not only did 7 percent move into the upper-income group, but that Hispanic immigrants accounted for three-quarters of the 4 percent that enlarged the lower-income category. Absent the influx of lower-skilled immigrants between 1971 and 2015, the share of middle-class households in the American population would have experienced only a 1 percent shift downward at the same time as the number of upper-income families increased by 7 percent. In other words, middle-class people did not so much experience a downward shift as immigrants enlarged the data set. And for many if not most of these immigrants, gaining a foothold in the lower-income group represented a significant economic step upward compared to their position before coming to the United States.

Rather than casting economic inequality as the incubator of social ills, Conard sees it as the obligatory reward of merit, talent, and risk-taking, which drives the innovation and productivity that have created an unprecedented degree of prosperity for the vast majority of Americans. A visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and founding partner at Bain Capital, he views the consequences of inequality from the other side of the political spectrum.  Although endorsing the beneficial implications of inequality, he challenges the metrics frequently cited as evidence that inequality is on the rise as middle-class incomes stagnate. Drawing on Philip Armour, Richard Burkhauser, and Jeff Larrimore’s analysis, Conard points out that the growth in median household income between 1979 and 2007 jumped from a sluggish 2 percent to 34 percent when the calculation of income was adjusted for household size, taxes, healthcare benefits, and government transfer payments.3

But even when income is properly measured, consumption is a more meaningful metric of material well-being and equality than income. As Conard sees it, an individual’s consumption of resources is his true cost to the rest of society. Compared to low- and middle-income households, those in the higher brackets consume a smaller proportion of their incomes, with the balance invested in further production, which benefits others as well as themselves. As such, consumption is more evenly distributed than income and generates a lower estimate of inequality between the rich and poor.

Whereas Sitaraman finds wealthy elites exercising increasing power over elected officials, Conard claims to detect a consensus in the academic research showing that money exerts surprising little influence in politics. In one sense this may be true, if political influence is judged strictly according to election outcomes. Although hefty amounts are required to run for national and state offices, there is no evidence that the super-rich can buy elections. A more relevant gauge of influence, however, is the degree to which the interests of the rich shape political decision-making through a nebulous process of persuasion that can border on outright corruption and is difficult to quantify. Needless to say, unlawful exchanges also exist in the political arena, as evidenced by the fact—to take a vivid but hardly rare example—that more than half the Governors of Illinois between 1961 and 2009 ended up in prison.

Conard is not content merely to refute the degree of political power presumably exercised by the rich. He reverses the argument that since the 1970s rising inequality has generated an American plutocracy, claiming that the significant growth (between 1 to 4 percent of GDP) in government transfers to low-income households is indicative of a decline in the wealthy elite’s influence on political decision-making over this period.

This claim is hard to accept. Looking at all the data on direct government transfers reveals that from 1979 to 2007 the share of public benefits received by households in the bottom income quintile declined from 54 to 36 percent of the total, while the share accruing to those in the top two income quintiles rose from 17 to 25 percent. And these figures exclude indirect social transfers, such as home mortgage interest deductions and the Child Care Tax Credit, which heavily favor families in the higher income brackets. If the trend in transfer payments is taken as a valid marker of political influence, one might claim that the increasing share of benefits going to those in the upper-income brackets signifies a rise in their political power.

As one might expect, Sitaraman’s and Conard’s contrary interpretations of the degree and consequences of economic inequality in the United States come with proposals for reform, which are also at variance with one another. Among the policies intended to realign political power by rebuilding the middle class, Sitaraman recommends several well-known progressive measures such as: raising the minimum wage; ensuring affordable college education; increasing the redistribution of income through tax policies; strengthening unions; and reinforcing regulatory measures. Conard advances the familiar argument that raising the minimum wage will eliminate low-skilled jobs, along with supporting unions, which increase wages by monopolizing the supply of labor rather than boosting productivity. To improve the lot of low-wage workers, he favors a generous earned-income tax credit, while quietly voicing concern that it might dis-incentivize some workers.

More generally, Conard argues that instead of increasing economic growth, taxing the rich to further the redistribution of income reduces entrepreneurial incentives for risk-taking—widely held to be the driving force of capitalist innovation and productivity. This argument rests on a firm belief in the power of economic incentives and their compounding effects over time, the particulars of which remain unspecified. It may be true that increased tax rates dis-incentivize innovation. Yet California, the hub of tremendous entrepreneurial activity and technological innovation, has the highest state income tax in the country.

Although Conard and Sitaraman recognize the need for a highly skilled and educated workforce to propel economic growth, they offer different readings on the scope of this need and how to best address it. Citing the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the staggering student loan debt of over $1.2 trillion, Sitaraman opts for policies that advance more affordable or even free access to college education. Conard observes that tuition for two- and four-year public colleges is essentially free for students from low-income families (defined as under $80,000 at the University of California) and that the average student graduating from a four-year college borrows $27,000, which is about the price of a new car loan. Building a skilled workforce, from his perspective, involves reducing government subsidies for college students in the humanities and providing more to those in science and math, who are needed to fill the high-tech jobs that fuel growth in the 21st century. To this end, Conard also favors dramatically increasing high-skilled immigration as a strategy to accelerate economic growth.

Reading Sitaraman and Conard side-by-side leads one to wonder what really ails America’s political economy. To what extent does inequality represent the rightful rewards that motivate entrepreneurial risk-taking or the results of plutocratic influence-peddling?  Is increasing inequality a sign that the rich are getting richer as the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is shrinking? Or is everyone’s standard of living on the rise? Is social mobility declining as inequality increases?

President Obama declared inequality to be the greatest challenge of our time, linking it to declining social mobility and a shrinking middle-class. These claims were frequently repeated and magnified by books, articles, and newspaper stories focused on the suffering of the chronic poor and unemployed. Although Sitaraman’s analysis confirms the prevailing view of an ailing society, Conard’s reading of the evidence conveys an alternative vision of prosperity that is more plausible.

Together, these two books (among others) form the platform for an enlightening debate that should have taken place (but didn’t) during the 2016 campaign, before the narrative was ceded to the leitmotif of “make America great again.” Now arguments based on actual evidence about core public policy issues seem to have gone out of style, at least in and around Washington. Today, arguments one dislikes are called not “mistaken” or “insufficiently supported by the data,” but rather “fake.” That gives new life to the old saw that Washington is the only town in the country where sound travels faster than light.


1See Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (University Press, 2012), winner of the 2013 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award; see also Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady, The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2012); and Nolan McCarty, “The Political Roots of Inequality,” The American Interest (May/June 2013).

2American Political Science Association Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, “American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality,” Perspectives on Politics (December 2004), p. 662.

3Philip Armour, Richard V. Burkhauser, and Jeff Larrimore, “Deconstructing Income and Income Inequality Measures: A Crosswalk from Market Income to Comprehensive Income,” American Economic Review (May 2013), pp. 173–177.


Neil Gilbert is the Chernin Professor Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Never Enough: Capitalism and the Progressive Spirit (Oxford University Press, 2017).


By            :               Neil Gilbert

Date         :               March 20, 2017

Source     :               The American Interest


Posted in Latest Post, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

The New Challenges Facing Young Undocumented Immigrants


In 2012, President Obama implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that helped young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States under the age of 16 prior to June 15, 2012. Criteria for inclusion in this program included attaining a high school diploma or equivalent and proof of continuous residence in the United States since 2007. Those granted protection could have the threat of possible deportation suspended for two years and receive a work permit and other government documents, if they volunteered identification information to the federal biometric registry and paid a $465 processing fee.

Benefits have been clear for undocumented young adults in Florida. Many have opened their first bank accounts and lines of credit, gained lawful employment, and obtained legal drivers’ licenses. Daily life has improved, as these young adults strengthen ties to the economy and educational system. Most of all, temporary stays of deportation threats go a long way toward reducing the anxieties these young people experienced before Deferred Action – when they worried they could, at any time, be detained and expelled from the country they consider home. Yet our research highlights new challenges faced by these partially protected young people.

Conflicting Roles and Unexpected Repercussions

After initial excitement about new Deferred Action protections, young recipients find themselves negotiating new responsibilities and unexpected burdens. One recipient we interviewed got a driver’s license and was pressed to become the family chauffer transporting her sister to and from school, because her undocumented mother feared being pulled over and possibly detained if she drove without a license. Out of familial duty, this young woman took on this role at the expense of getting a steady job. Like her, many other Deferred Action beneficiaries feel a sense of moral duty to their families, which complicates meeting the usual challenges of young adulthood by seeking to advance their educational and financial goals. They can end up taking responsibility for protecting, providing, and caring for parents, who are of working age but do not have the legal standing to command better jobs or move around independently. An overwhelming sense of duty to use personal advantages to help their families becomes a version of “survivor’s guilt” – the sense that they are protected while loved ones are not. Such internal turmoil can offset some of the psychological benefits from Deferred Action protections.

In short, in the absence of protections for entire families, new access to rights and resources for young undocumented adults can lead to new conflict. Young adults can end up burdened at home and, ironically, impeded from achieving some the of the very goals Obama’s Deferred Action program aims to help them attain. Every time a young adult chauffeurs family members, at the cost of missing work or school or delaying a search for a better-paid and more demanding job, he or she puts off social and educational advancement. This risks long-term educational and economic stagnation for young adults, and may weaken their ties and potential contributions to the larger U.S. community.

Shifting Insecurities

Deferred Action beneficiaries not only report stress related to the exclusion of family members from their new rights. Many also still cope with fears about family separation and sudden demands to serve as heads of households – as in the case of one recipient whose father had been detained, and another whose mother had been deported. The same sorts of stresses that existed prior to the Deferred Action program persist in the subsequent period for mixed-status families. President Obama tried to give further help to such families in 2014 through the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability Program, extending relief from deportation and other benefits to parents with a son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident in the country as of November 20th, 2014, who can prove continuous residence in the country since January 1st, 2010. Announcement of this extension was well-received in immigrant communities across the country, but before long officials in the state of Texas and 25 other states filed suit in federal court to block implementation, which happened when the fifth Circuit stayed Obama’s initiative. Recently, an evenly divided Supreme Court left the federal court’s stay intact.

The temporary nature of the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program also creates new anxieties. One young woman feared that if she lost protected status or had it taken away, her name could come up on “the list” for deportation. Prior to the Deferred Action program, she had endeavored to remain anonymous. Her case is typical. Although many young adults feel that the Deferred Action program has improved their ability to be active in their communities, they must still confront the worry that a future presidential order, Congressional legislation, or judicial ruling could reverse their status to “illegal” once again. This time, they would be easy to identify on government lists. Some Deferred Action participants described life in the program as a new form of limbo, not too different from their former undocumented status. As one stated, “Now, it’s just again back to insecurity.”

The Continuing Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Should a future nine-member Supreme Court lift the injunction blocking the 2014 program for undocumented parents, the country could see greater returns from Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action program for young adults. Rather than delay their individual goals to take care of the undocumented members of their families, they will be better able to leverage the new benefits Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has given them. Transitions to fully participating in adulthood will be spurred along, especially for those whose parents gain new protections.

In sum, initial steps such as those in Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program work as intended only when they become part of a succession of immigration reforms. The overall goal must be to help families and individuals come out of the shadows and become full participants in their communities, schools, and the economy. When only single family members are protected, they remain hampered if others in their households remain under threat of detention or deportation. Although the 2012 Deferred Action program is still being implemented and has opened some doors for undocumented youth, full attainment of its goals awaits further protections for entire immigrant families – which can happen, now, only if the courts reopen the challenge to Obama’s 2014 program and Congress and a new President work together on all parts of comprehensive immigration reform.


By            :               Elizabeth Aranda (University of South Florida)

Date         :               September 2016

Source     :               Scholars Strategy Network


Posted in Latest Post, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

Book Review: It’s Not Just Unfair: Inequality Is a Threat to Our Governance


Book    :           The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens                                                   Our Republic

Author  :            Ganesh Sitaraman

Pages   :           432 Pages

Publisher:          Alfred A. Knopf

Date:                 March 2017


President Obama labeled income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” But why exactly? And why “our time” especially? In part because we now know just how much goes to the very top of the income distribution, and beyond that, we know that recent economic growth, which has been anemic in any case, has accrued mostly to those who were already well-heeled, leaving stagnation or worse for many Americans. But why is this a problem?

Why am I hurt if Mark Zuckerberg develops Facebook, and gets rich on the proceeds? Some care about the unfairness of income inequality itself, some care about the loss of upward mobility and declining opportunities for our kids and some care about how people get rich — hard work and innovation are O.K., but theft, legal or otherwise, is not. Yet there is one threat of inequality that is widely feared, and that has been debated for thousands of years, which is that inequality can undermine governance. In his fine book, both history and call to arms, Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the contemporary explosion of inequality will destroy the American Constitution, which is and was premised on the existence of a large and thriving middle class. He has done us all a great service, taking an issue of overwhelming public importance, delving into its history, helping understand how our forebears handled it and building a platform to think about it today.

As recognized since ancient times, the coexistence of very rich and very poor leads to two possibilities, neither a happy one. The rich can rule alone, disenfranchising or even enslaving the poor, or the poor can rise up and confiscate the wealth of the rich. The rich tend to see themselves as better than the poor, a proclivity that is enhanced and even socially sanctioned in modern meritocracies. The poor, with little prospect of economic improvement and no access to political power, “might turn to a demagogue who would overthrow the government — only to become a tyrant. Oligarchy or tyranny, economic inequality meant the end of the republic.”

Some constitutions were written to contain inequalities. In Rome, the patricians ruled, but could be overruled by plebeian tribunes whose role was to protect the poor. There are constitutions with lords and commoners in separate chambers, each with well-defined powers. Sitaraman calls these “class warfare constitutions,” and argues that the founding fathers of the United States found another way, a republic of equals. The middle classes, who according to David Hume were obsessed neither with pleasure-seeking, as were the rich, nor with meeting basic necessities, as were the poor, and were thus amenable to reason, could be a firm basis for a republic run in the public interest. There is some sketchy evidence that income and wealth inequality was indeed low in the 18th century, but the crucial point is that early America was an agrarian society of cultivators with an open frontier. No one needed to be poor when land was available in the West.

The founders worried a good deal about people getting too rich. Jefferson was proud of his achievement in abolishing the entail and primogeniture in Virginia, writing the laws that “laid the ax to the root of Pseudoaristocracy.” He called for progressive taxation and, like the other founders, feared that the inheritance of wealth would lead to the establishment of an aristocracy. (Contrast this with those today who simultaneously advocate both equality of opportunity and the abolition of estate taxes.) Madison tried to calculate how long the frontier would last, and understood the threat to the Constitution that industrialization would bring; many of the founders thought of wage labor as little better than slavery and hoped that America could remain an agrarian society.

Of course, the fears about industrialization were realized, and by the late 19th century, in the Gilded Age, income inequality had reached levels comparable to those we see today. In perhaps the most original part of his book, Sitaraman, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, highlights the achievements of the Progressive movement, one of whose aims was taming inequality, and which successfully modified the Constitution. There were four constitutional amendments in seven years — the direct election of senators, the franchise for women, the prohibition of alcohol and the income tax. To which I would add another reform, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, which provided a mechanism for handling financial crises without the need for the government to be bailed out by rich bankers, as well as the reduction in the tariff, which favored ordinary people by bringing down the cost of manufactures. Politics can respond to inequality, and the Constitution is not set in stone.

What of today, when inequality is back in full force? I am not persuaded that we can be saved by the return of a rational and public-spirited middle class, even if I knew exactly how to identify middle-class people, or to measure how well they are doing. Nor is it clear, postelection, whether the threat is an incipient oligarchy or an incipient populist autocracy; our new president tweets from one to the other. And European countries, without America’s middle-class Constitution, face some of the same threats, though more from autocracy than from plutocracy, which their constitutions may have helped them resist. Yet it is clear that we in the United States face the looming threat of a takeover of government by those who would use it to enrich themselves together with a continuing disenfranchisement of large segments of the population.

Sitaraman reviews many possible correctives, including redistribution to reduce inequality; better enforcement of antitrust laws; campaign finance reform to break the dependence of legislators on deep pockets; compulsory voting; and restrictions on lobbying, including the possibility of “public defender” lobbyists to act on behalf of the people. I would add the creation of a single-payer health system, not because I am in favor of socialized medicine but because the artificially inflated costs of health care are powering up inequality by producing large fortunes for a few while holding down wages; the pharmaceutical industry alone had 1,400 lobbyists in Washington in 2014. American health care does a poor job of delivering health, but is exquisitely designed as an inequality machine, commanding an ever-larger share of G.D.P. and funneling resources to the top of the income distribution.

Perhaps the least familiar and most intriguing policy proposal that Sitaraman discusses is the idea of reviving the Roman tribunate: 51 citizens would be selected by lot from the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution. They would be able to veto one statute, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision each year; they would be able to call a referendum, and impeach federal officials.

Such a proposal seems fanciful today, but so is campaign finance reform, or greater redistribution. Yet we do well to remember Milton Friedman’s dictum that it takes a crisis to bring real change, so that our job in the meantime is to develop alternatives to existing policies that are ready for when “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” There will surely be no lack of crises in the days to come.

Angus Deaton, a professor emeritus at Princeton, was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2015.

By            :               Angus Deaton

Date         :               March 20, 2017

Source     :               The New York Times


Posted in Latest Post, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment
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