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Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

Thinking Inequality

Now that economic inequality has become a focus of attention – mentions of “income inequality” in the New York Times went up five-fold in the 2010s compared to the 2000s, 200-fold compared to the 1990s – we know a few things about it clearly. For example: American inequality is unusually great among western societies; it has been growing substantially in recent decades; most recently, the gaps have widened especially between the very richest and the rest; and a good deal of inequality is subject to policy decisions (although some folks have been making that point for decades).

One thing that remains quite unclear is how average Americans think about inequality. Do they know about it, care about it, understand it, want to do anything about it?

In her 2013 book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution, sociologist Leslie McCall methodically tries to figure out Americans’ thinking about inequality. She disentangles the way Americans have answered a wide variety of survey questions on the topic over the last quarter-century or so, looking for the thread of logic that makes Americans’ knotted-up answers to all those questions coherent. In the end, she concludes that Americans are indeed aware, are concerned, and want action – and in a notably American way.

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More Inequality Updates

Last week, I was fortunate to be in the audience when about 20 experts came together to report on new research on and new ideas about American economic inequality. The occasion for the conclave was to celebrate the roughly 40-year anniversary of the path-breaking book, Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America and celebrate as well the career of its lead author, Christopher “Sandy” Jencks. The arguments and evidence of the 1972 Inequality are, of course, dated. But its questions and analyses set an agenda for the following four decades, including much of the work presented at the conference.

Christopher Jencks (source)

Christopher Jencks
(source)

This post briefly reports a few of the findings and insights some of the speakers provided. They make us think harder about how inequality is growing, the various (often non-obvious) dynamics involved, and the ways inequality is itself fueling further inequality. (An earlier update on inequality research is here.)

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Economic historians studying early America remind one of archaeologists studying prehistoric civilizations. Instead of piecing together pot shards and bone splinters to help imagine cultural practices many millennia ago, the historians piece together fragments of tax records, tattered business ledgers, town regulations, and a few partial censuses (and sometimes pot shards and bones, as well) to describe our economy about three centuries ago.

usps.com

usps.com

Writing in the current Journal of Economic History, Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, esteemed scholars of American economic development, put together a picture of Americans’ incomes before and after the Revolution (gated here; earlier pdf version here.). By interconnecting complex varieties of data, they are able to estimate incomes and standards of living in American households in 1774 and in 1800.

At least three fascinating stories emerge: the cost of American independence, the fall of the South, and the roots of America’s image as the land of economic equality.

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Inequality Hits Home

In recent days, President Obama has returned to speaking on the theme of rising economic inequality in America since the 1970s (e.g., here and here), addressing the insecurity that it has caused the middle class, which now needs more hands on deck working harder to keep up, and speaking about how it has demorilized young people unlucky enough not to be born into advantage. To be sure, some claim that inequality has not been widening and that, even if it has, the middle class has nonetheless done just fine (e.g., here). The dueling calculations in this debate can get pretty complex, though most serious scholars agree with the President’s summary (see these earlier posts: herehereherehere). A new study reveals what has been going on from yet another viewpoint: that of parents and grown-up children who are living together.

Demographers Joan Kahn, Frances Goldscheider, and Javier García-Manglano have just published an important paper [1] tracking Americans’ living arrangements over 50 years. Their results send two strong messages: One, the economic struggles of young adults today, particularly of men and of the less-educated, have led many more of them to live with their parents than before. And, two, young people living with parents increasingly depend on their parents’ income. Both findings reinforce the President’s concerns about our economic stagnation.

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Inequality Update

Inequality has become the new hot topic over the last several years – in the media and in the research community. This post briefly reports several recent studies of inequality that tell us what’s been happening, why, and to what effect. (It’s not a cheery story.) Before that, notice how rapidly public attention – if not action – has recently turned to inequality.

Income inequality started widening about 1970, expanded quickly in the 1980s and 1990s (when colleagues and I wrote Inequality by Design), and grew much more slowly since.[1] Media and academic interest in the topic seems to have taken off about 25 years after the big jump. The number of stories in the New York Times that mentioned inequality rose from about 90 a year in the 1990s to 840 a year in the 2000s and to about 2,700 a year since the start of 2010. About 250 economics articles a year touched on inequality in the 1990s – much fewer than in sociology, by the way – 850 in the 2000s and over 3,500 per year in the 2010s.[2] Better late than never.

Source

Piketty & Saez via Source

What are some of things we are learning from this 30-fold increase in media attention and 14-fold growth in economic research? What follows is not a systematic overview – that would be a Herculean task and there are many books that attempt it – but an introduction to several studies that drifted across my (virtual) desktop recently. Some give us the long view, some a view of how the Great Recession accentuated inequality.

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Paying Attention to the Kids

Whether Americans are doing right by their kids is a recurrent subject of often bitter debate. With controversies about the “tiger mom,” or “helicopter parents,” or career women “dumping” their children on others, or men doing their share, there is no end of worry about whether 21st-century American parents are properly committed to their children.

Some recent data suggests that American parents in the last generation have been at least trying harder than parents did decades ago. They are spending more money on their kids and, given their work schedules, spending more time with their kids. This trend developed in the face of other trends have made attending to kids more and more difficult: the growth of single parenting, the entry of most mothers into the labor force, and the exacerbated financial strains on middle- and working-class families. While parents are making the effort, as is so often the case these days, widening inequality makes it harder for some parents and kids than others.

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A Modern “Antebellum Puzzle”?

As described in an earlier post, there was a long period during America’ nineteenth-century economic growth in which progress was so uneven, so unequal that the height and life spans of Americans declined for a few decades. On average, those who were born between roughly 1830 and 1870 grew up a bit shorter and lived a bit shorter lives than those born before and after. Wealthier Americans’ children, however, did not suffer this setback.

The “antebellum puzzle” of widespread GDP growth but worsening lives for average Americans is explained, in part, by the increasing spread of disease among an urbanizing and traveling people and even more by a reduction in nutritious food for children. Growing national and international demand drove up the price of foods like milk and meat and even led farmers to divert their production from feeding their families to selling crops on the global market. The unevenness of developing commerce helps explain the unequal pattern of height loss.1

This history raises for us the question of whether the recent expansion of inequality since the 1970s is creating its own, modern version of the “antebellum puzzle.”

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