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Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

“It’s easier to find a denier of global warming than of rising inequality,” quips economist Jared Bernstein. Maybe. But arguments over defining, describing, and deciphering the sources and consequences of that inequality—not to mention whether and how to deal with it—remain highly contested. Most Americans believe, like Bernstein, that inequality has grown. Two to one they consider its extent “unfair,” rate it an important voting issue, and wish that something would be done about it, including taxing the rich. And, although most say that they are satisfied with Americans’ opportunities to “get ahead,” they have become less sure of that since the turn of the century.

What Americans seem to really care about, though, is not inequality per se but what it means for inequality of economic opportunity. Americans care about people getting their “just rewards.” Some, those in the Paul Ryan school, profess to care about poverty and middle-class struggles, but still take no issue with inequality of outcomes. In other words, it is not about the gap. If everyone were getting richer, why would it matter if the rich did so fastest? And conversely, if everyone were getting poorer, would a shrinking gap be any consolation? For many scholars, however, the issue is precisely the gap, because it itself has consequences. It may well be, for example, that inequality of outcomes undermines equality of opportunity, as many Americans fear. In this essay, I examine the recent research on growing inequality, whether inequality is itself harmful, and what might be done to counteract some of its effects.  See the rest of this column at the Boston Review, here.

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Voting for the Five Percent

“Why don’t working class voters vote their economic interests?” has been a perennial question for generations of academics. (One might also ask why full professors don’t vote their interests–for tax-cutting conservatives.) Part of the problem in addressing the question is knowing whether the premise is correct. When unemployed coal miners or WalMart greeters vote Republican, are they really voting against their economic interests? For the most part, they would deny that they are.

An article appearing last summer in the Journal of Politics adds some hard numbers to that discussion. Timothy Hicks, Alan M. Jacobs, and J. Scott Matthews report findings suggesting that in many countries, particularly in the United States, not only do working-class voters seem to not vote for self-declared working-class parties in the numbers observers would expect, they actually tend to vote for incumbents who have overseen greater gains for wealthy than for average families.

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Does Education Work?

Just about everyone from left to right believes in the power of more education for more Americans, that more education for all will open up opportunity, raise standards of living, and reduce economic inequality. Some scholars, however, are skeptical.

They have at least three related arguments. One is that the content of education–perhaps beyond basic literacy and skills– does not matter for individuals’ economic attainment, that what matters is the person’s relative level of education. When few people have graduated high school, doing so will make a big difference, but when most people have a high school diploma, then real success then requires going to college. Employers just up their requirements as educational attainment spreads, so what is important is being ahead of the pack.

Another argument is that educational degrees just signal or “credential” people with talent, people who would have succeeded with or without the extra classwork. More degrees for more people will not change that.

A third argument is that advantaged families find ways to pass on advantage to their children even as education becomes more widespread. They do that by supporting their sons’ and daughters’ attainment of yet further, more exclusive schooling, maintaining leads over those from less advantaged backgrounds and thus maintaining the inheritance of inequality (see, e.g., here).

A just-published article takes a look at what happened to equality and social mobility in the United States when a major educational reform swept through the nation in the nineteenth century: compulsory schooling. (more…)

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The increasing delay of death for Americans over the last century or so has been extensive and consequential, probably in many profound ways that we do not fully appreciate. In the late 19th century, a newborn white boy would be expected to live, on average, to about 40; now, such a newborn can be expected to live into his late 70s. A ten-year-old then could expect to reach his late 50s and a ten-year-old can now expect to reach his mid-70s. Girls live longer and nonwhites shorter lives, but the trends have been dramatically upward for them, as well. Moreover, Americans’ health, while they lived, also improved markedly.

How did this happen? Historians have excavated old health records and applied new techniques to parse out why better health and lower mortality occurred. In a just-published review of the topic, appearing in the Journal of Economic Literature, UCLA economic historian Dora Costa describes how the United States extended its people’s lives in different ways in different eras, depending in part on the nature of the health threat and on public will.

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Just Deserts

Now that growing economic inequality is widely accepted as fact—it took a couple of decades for the stubborn to acknowledge this—some wonder why Americans are not more upset about it. Americans do not like inequality, but their dislike has not increased. This spring, 63 percent of Gallup Poll respondents agreed that “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed,” but that percentage has hardly changed in thirty years. Neither widening inequality nor the Great Recession has turned Americans to the left, much less radicalized them.

This puzzle recalls the hoary question of why there is no socialism in America. Why is the United States distinctive among Western nations in the weakness of its labor movement, absence of universal health care and other public goods, and reluctance to redistribute income where the elderly are not concerned? Generations of answers have ranged from the American mindset (say, individualism) to exercises of brute political power (e.g., strike-breakers, campaign money) to the formal structure of government (such as single-member districts). Some recent research presents a cultural explanation—specifically, Americans’ tendency to see issues of inequality in terms of deservingness . . . . See the rest of this post–and its discussion of Americans’ belief in the “just society”– at the Boston Review here.

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Re-posted on 3QuarksDaily (September 29, 2015)

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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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