Inequality in America: The Data Is Sobering

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The New York Times
By: Eduardo Porter
July 30, 2013

The good news is that President Obama appears to have decided to devote the rest of his presidency to trying to tackle the forces behind the yawning inequities that have hamstrung social and economic mobility, eroding the living standards of the middle class.

The bad news is that he may not be up to the task.

Consider the ideas he outlined during his speech at Knox College last week. Some are old. Some are new. Some are good, some less so. But the main problem with the set is that the politically feasible -- those that he articulated with the most specificity -- are the least likely to change the nation's economic dynamics.

Connecting the nation's schools to broadband is a good idea. So is tweaking the tax code to help ordinary Americans save for retirement.

Measured against what the president called "the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades," however, they are less than overwhelming.

The president's most powerful proposals, by contrast -- including investment in infrastructure, a higher minimum wage and universal preschool for 4-year-olds -- remain as unlikely as ever to emerge from the nation's partisan divide.

Many opponents simply reject Mr. Obama's basic premise. Some researchers on the right of the political spectrum argue that inequality is not, in fact, gaping. Others contend that middle class stagnation is a myth concocted by the left to justify retro government activism à la 1970s.

After the president's speech, the conservative blogger James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute posted on Twitter: "I feel like I am in Middle-earth hearing about return of Sauron."

The problem is that weaving modest policy proposals through the tiny spaces allowed by the nation's partisan stalemate is unlikely to bear much fruit. A better strategy might be to articulate -- forcefully -- the nature of the problem and build a political consensus that would ultimately lead to long-delayed changes to American society.

It could go something like this:

The United States remains among the richest countries in the world. National income per person trails only that of Norway, Luxembourg, Singapore, Switzerland and Hong Kong. Yet despite its riches, in many areas the United States looks surprisingly, depressingly backward.

Infant and maternal mortality are the highest among advanced nations. So is the mortality rate of children under the age of 20. Life expectancy -- at birth and at age 60 -- is among the lowest.

Teenage pregnancy rates are not only higher than in other rich nations, they are higher than in Kazakhstan and Burundi. The United States has the highest rate of children living with a single parent among the industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Within the organization, only in Turkey, Mexico and Poland do more children live in poor homes.

These statistics may appear unrelated to the president's vision of a society cleaved between a sliver of haves reaping ever-fatter rewards and hordes of have-nots who haven't had a shot at a better life in at least a decade.

But they are intimately related not only to the problem but also to the nation's willingness to solve it. They underscore how early underprivileged Americans fall behind.

America's gaping inequality shows up everywhere, beyond the statistics for income. Rich families invest more in their children's education. Educational opportunities are stacked against the poor and middle class: 60 percent of disadvantaged children go to disadvantaged schools with fewer and lower quality resources, according to a report on educational disparities.

Unsurprisingly, literacy is more lopsided than in most other industrial nations, according to international tests of 15-year-olds carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The gap between the top American scorers -- at the 90th percentile of the distribution -- and those in the middle is about as big as the gap between the average score in the United States and AzerbaijanName

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This page contains a single entry by CFED published on August 1, 2013 4:40 PM.

U.S. Citizenship as an Economic Asset was the previous entry in this blog.

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