Now that we’re two years removed from the Bernie Sanders campaign, the claim that American society suffers from rampant inequalities is no longer a shocker. If anything, Senator Sanders’ candidacy proclaimed inequality as public enemy number one. He’s helped us understand that inequality in the US (and elsewhere) consists of three sub-categories: income, wealth, and opportunity.
Income inequality is the most accessible of the three, revealed by comparisons in hourly wages, daily wages, and yearly salaries of workers. Income inequality is on the rise in the US, and has been for more than thirty-five years.
To understand wealth inequality, consider that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has hovered around 25,000 for all of 2018. Are you among the 55 percent of American adults who own stocks? Before the 2008 “Great Recession” when the Dow Jones index fluctuated between 12,000 and 13,000, close to 65 percent of Americans owned stocks. Today, the pool of stock owners as a percentage of total population is the smallest it’s been in a generation, concentrating wealth. Increases in stock market indices generally mean those that already have plenty get more.
A number of us (myself included) have retirement pensions and other holdings in the stock market. I fit the majority stockholder profile: white college grad living in a household making more than $75,000 per year. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of whites, 28 percent of blacks, and 17 percent of Hispanics held stocks as of 2013. Financial market holdings, along with business and home ownerships are the main markers of accumulated wealth. The racial wealth gap has increased since 2008 in the US – whites have thirteen times greater wealth (overall assets minus liabilities) than blacks, and ten times greater than Hispanics.* Double or triple would be a significant difference – thirteen and ten times greater reveals a rigged system, historically and currently so.
Economist, financier, and author Mohamed El-Erian best explains opportunity inequality in his book The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse (Penguin Random House, 2016): “The worsening of income and wealth inequality has been so pronounced within countries that it now also undermines opportunities” (p. 84). In other words, as inequality continues to increase in the sub-categories of income and wealth, opportunities decrease. This explains why the great American tradition of economic and social mobility is morphing, especially during the past thirty-five years, into economic and social immobility. El-Erian, an American with extensive work experience worldwide, warns that the important role of inequality serving to incentivize and reward hard work and entrepreneurship now takes a back seat to excessive inequalities that harm society in many ways. We’re becoming stuck, and it’s not a good place in which to get stuck.
El-Erian further details inequality’s tightening grip. Wall Street has recovered from 2008’s Great Recession. Corporate profits, as a share of GDP, have reached record highs in the post-Great Recession era. Job creation has improved, but wages remain flat. El-Erian says while the rich continue to get richer, “conventional cyclical redistribution policies have been noticeably absent. With active budget policy making heavily constrained by political polarization, there has been a reduced emphasis on transfer payments and other support for the poor” (p. 87). The 2018 Republican tax cuts, many inequality watchdog groups claim, will only exacerbate the inequality trifecta.
“Redistribution” – El-Erian knows that the use of the word is dangerous in today’s era of inequality. Since the first era of rampant inequality – the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century – redistribution, however, has been an important tool to help make an unequal society a better society. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Title 1 of the Education and Secondary Education Act, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) are some examples of redistribution and transfer payments that specifically benefit the elderly and children in America. Without these programs, American society would be decidedly worse off.
What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want our grandchildren to live in? I’m all for continuing to advocate for a society that is egalitarian, civil, and full of opportunity with just rewards.
And for those of us concerned that “big government” is creating a permanently dependent “slacker” class? I offer the following counter-argument: Governmental policy and actions in the past thirty-five years have favored the richer classes and are chiefly responsible for the creation of today’s rampant inequalities that threaten our shared common good.
*For you curious types (like me), as of 2013, Asian-Americans have wealth stores that are 70 percent of the level of whites.
The original version of this post was published in September 2016.
Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).