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Posts Tagged ‘opportunity’

“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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Two new books worry about the unstable lives of the white working class. Both Andrew Cherlin, noted sociologist of the family, and Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone (2000) fame, warn that the economic insecurity blue-collar workers have faced over the last forty years has disordered the lives of white working-class children. That transformation, in turn, has handicapped their cognitive development, personal ties, community involvement, and economic success.

The basic story is well known. Since about 1970, there has been a gross deterioration in the jobs, wages, and employment stability available to men with no more than a high school degree. A few conservative writers have tried to muddle these facts, but facts they are. And it is not just that the economic fortunes of less-educated men have diverged sharply from those of men with bachelor’s degrees . . . .  Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review, here.

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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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