between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all
A 1979 Carnegie study
Children, Inequality, and the Limits of Liberal Reform", Richard de Lone
principal investigator) found that a child's future to be largely determined
by social status, not brains. Consider Bobby and Jimmy, two second-graders,
who both pay attention in the classroom, do well, and have nearly identical
I.Q.s. Yet Bobby is the son of a successful lawyer; Jimmy's works infrequently
as custodial assistant. Despite their similarities, the difference in the
circumstances to which they were born makes it 27 times more likely that
Bobby will get a job that by time he is in late 40s will pay him an income
in the top tenth of all incomes in this country. Jimmy had about one chance
in eight of earning even a median income.
Now, three decades later,
projected inequality of fates of Bobby and Jimmy's second grade successors
is even greater. For a variety of reasons to be here explored, inequality
in the United States has increased to the extent that the gap between the
rich and poor is larger now than at time since 1928--greater
than that of any industrialized nation (see Edward N. Wolff's 1995 Top
Heavy: A Study of Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America, Twentieth
Century Fund, and his "The
Rich Get Richer: And Why the Poor Don't"). A
2007 study of the Congressional Office Bureau found the wealth of the
richest 1 percent of Americans totaled $16.8 trillion, $2 trillion more than the
combined wealth of the lower 90 percent of the population. The
Center for American Progress reported how between 1979 and 2007 the average
income of the bottom 50 percent of American households grew by 6%; the top 1%
saw their income increase by 229 percent.
Such statistics (see Injustice
Studies, a refereed electronic journal out of Illinois State, for
more) raise many questions, including:
Is inequality desirable or
for social progress in improving the quality of life for the vast majority
What determines the variability of
inequality across the nations of the world?
Are there thresholds in the
between the haves and have-nots that lead to social revolution? Is inequality,
at least in terms of income and wealth, really a social
Can there be economic inequality
yet political equality? Can, for instance, capitalism coexist with
In capitalist economies, who should
provide the safety nets for those unable to compete, such as because of
age or physical or mental disabilities?
First, what do you know about social
inequality? Take the
interactive quiz from Cornell's Center for the Study of Social Inequality to
ascertain your "IQ" (Inequality Quotient).
Of interest here are the ways in
inequality is institutionalized, in other words, the ways by which socially-defined categories of persons (ignoring differences in individuals'
talents and abilities) are unevenly rewarded for their social contributions.
These are the criteria by which the social worthiness of individuals are
judged and discriminations made, such as the classifications of gender,
ethnicity, race, religion, age and generation. These vary, in part, on
the basis of a society's stratification order (i.e., caste, class, or mixed)
and its cultural history (i.e., the legacy of slavery on race relations
in the United States). And the "rewards" come in a number of forms: power,
wealth, social power, prestige in the eyes of others, self-esteem and sense
of personal efficacy, the number and welfare of one's progeny, and one's
satisfaction and happiness with life.
For data and analyses about
the contemporary inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth check
In The Middle Class as a Precondition of a Sustainable
Society, Nikolai Tilkidjiew
observes "...the best
political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those
states are likely to be well-administered, in which the middle class is large,
and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either
singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents
either of the extremes from becoming dominant."
For a number of social
scientists, its shrinkage in recent decades in the United States is a
cause for concern. Fortunately, a sizable percent of the population
considers itself "middle class"-- 45.6 percent, according to the 2002
NORC General Social Survey--including more than one quarter of high school
dropouts aged 26-41.
The law, in its
majestic impartiality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in
the streets, and to steal bread.
Charles Booth Online Archive.
"Charles Booth was a 19th century Victorian-era Englishman concerned with
the rapid increase in poverty and human suffering throughout London that
developed during the late 19th century. As such, he embarked on a 30-year quest
to document these conditions throughout London by creating detailed poverty maps
of the city, engaging in hundreds of detailed interviews with people from all
walks of life, and publishing his results in a multi-volume set that was
completed in 1903" (SCOUT, Jan. 10,
Why are some groups more
at assimilating than others?
Age and generational
As the proportion of the American population of children under the age of 18
dropped from a peak of 36 percent in 1962 to 26 percent in 2000, what has happened to their status within the various
stratification orders? In 2000, of those living with family members, the
poverty rate declined 27% since 1993, from 22 percent to 16. And what about the elderly, who now comprise about 13 percent of the population?
Status attainment processes: patterns
of intergenerational and intragenerational
According to a May 2007 report of the Economic Mobility Project of Pew Charitable Trusts ("Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?), in 1964 American men in their thirties had a median income of $31,097 (controlling for inflation) while thirty years later their son's generation was making 5% more, $32,801; in 1974, American men in their thirties had a median income of $40,210 while thirty years later the median income for men in their thirties was $35,010--a 12% decline.
Classical statements and theoretical
perspectives of how stratification orders are maintained and changed. Take
advantage of the University of Chicago's Society
for Social Research Page and Carl
Cuneo's website for collections of primary and interpretative
functionalism: Social functions and
dysfunctions of social inequality
social mechanisms: structural
social psychological mechanisms:
consciousness, class consciousness
Sources of social
lessons from war: relations between
victors and vanquished
From "collective consciousness" to
collective action: Social movements. Given the proper socio-cultural conditions
inequalities can spawn collective behavior, which historically have been
major agents of social change. Examples in the United States include the
labor, civil rights, ethnic, old age, and
the women's movements of the past century.
Evidence from the Haymarket Affair
1886-1887 from the Library of Congress. "This collection showcases more than 3,800 images of original manuscripts,
broadsides, photographs, prints and artifacts relating to the Haymarket Affair.
The violent confrontation between Chicago police and labor protesters in 1886
proved to be a pivotal setback in the struggle for American workers' rights."
In The Washington
Mark Shields ("Pay the Workers," Aug. 22, 1995:A17) observed how, in 1960,
the average pay, after taxes, for chief executives at the largest U.S.
corporations was 12 times greater than the average wage of factory workers.
By 1974, the CEO's wages and compensation had increased to about 35 times
that of the company's average worker. In 1980 the average CEO was making
42 times as much as the average blue collar worker, doubling ten years later to
84 times. Then hyper-inequality kicked in. By the mid-1990s,
according to Business
Week, the factor was 135 times as much. In 1999, it had reached
400-fold and in 2000 jumped
again to 531! Check out the AFL-CIO's Executive Paywatch page for updates on the
spiraling pay of America's corporate elite. For an inventory of
compensation packages by company, gathered by Mercury Center News, click
implications of the shift from the
production of manufactured goods to increasing concentration in the service
industries. Take advantage of the rich resources available at the Bureau
of Labor Statistics. Some data for discussion:
The Impact of Wal-Mart on national and international stratification orders
In 2002, this company posted $245 billion in sales--eight times as much as
Microsoft. None of its 1.2 million employees are unionized. Its
grocery workers often make less than $9 an hour. Relentlessly pushing
suppliers to reduce prices, it has accelerated the exporting of manufacturing
jobs to developing nations.
of hourly compensation costs for production workers in manufacturing in
29 countries, 1975- 97--standardized
(U.S.=100) and in U.S.
dollars. Having examined these figures (noting, for instance, what
happened to Mexico upon implementation of NAFTA) , don't you wonder how they
correlate with the investments
party loyalties and voting patterns.
Is there in the United States a declining significance of social class
in party loyalties, as some social scientists contend is the case throughout
Western democracies? Click to see:
Inequality and the mass
media. Throughout history the elite have maintained their exclusive
positions within stratification orders through physical, behavioral, emotive
and cognitive controls. According to critical
theorists, modern communication technologies are but the latest mechanism
of elite manipulation and oppression. Television viewing, for instance,
which decreases with social class, supposedly
leads individuals to view themselves as being relatively powerless and
apolitical, oblivious of the real forces shaping their lives (filled, instead,
with extensive trivia and factoids), escapist, and consumers of whatever
capitalism has to peddle. Ben Bagdikian, in his fifth edition of Media
Monopoly, calculates that only ten corporations now determine what
a majority of us hear, read and see--down from fifty corporations in 1983.
Even the supposed media
watchdogs are reportedly part of the conspiracy. For analyses of the
media consumption of American voters and their effects on Americans' political
knowledge and beliefs click
LOOKING AT INTERNATIONAL
According a 1997 report by the World
Bank, because of industrial development (particularly in China, Indonesia,
South Korea and Singapore) poverty in East Asian nations has declined by
more than half over the past two decades. Nevertheless, 21 percent of their
populations remained in poverty in 1995, with evidence of widening gaps
between the rich and the poor.
And that is the good news. In 1999, according to the Economic
Policy Institute, the richest 10 percent of the world's population's income
is roughly 117
times higher than the poorest 10 percent, up from 79 times higher in 1980.
Take China out of the equation and the 1999 ratio becomes 154:1.
Share of Global
to Richest 20% and Poorest 20%
of World 's
Share of Richest 20%
Share of Poorest 20%
Ratio of Richest to
30 to 1
32 to 1
45 to 1
59 to 1
Human Development Report, 1992.
In 2004, according to Worldwatch Institute's "The
State of Consumption Today, "the 12 percent of the world’s population
that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of
private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and
sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent."
The impacts of modernization on
Anna Tibaijuka, UN-Habitat Executive Director, warned in 2004 before the release of
"The State of the World's
how "Extremism is likely to flourish in the world's rapidly spreading slums if governments do not tackle the poverty that fuels it."
In 2030, an estimated 5 billion people will be urban dwellers, 2 billion of whom
When perceiving inequalities
a global perspective--such as noting the stratification orders between
unions of "core," "semi-periphery," and "periphery" nation-states-- one
comes to appreciate how any model of inequality that's worth its salt must
address numerous systems of social arrangements which ultimately make people
and groups "better off" relative to others. Not only must it identify the
separate workings of each of these systems but also how each interacts
with the others--how, for instance, Mideast gender orders are shaped by
OPEC's power relative to that of Western and Asian cartels, how the
social standing of shamans in preindustrial societies are affected by satellite-beamed
American television, or the ways core nations import the cognitive laborers or
developing countries ("brain
drains"). Like the various interlocking gears of a clock, this
model must develop:
the psychological orders: the
in the ways individuals think of themselves (i.e., feelings of esteem and
worth, sense of control over personal fate), which are, in turn, shaped
by (and produce):
the interpersonal orders: how
senses of relative superiority, equality or subordination vis-à-vis each
other influence their behaviors, which are, in turn, shaped by (and
the institutional orders: the social
dynamics underlying the inequalities among and between entire racial, ethic,
occupational (and professional), age (and generational), and religious
groups, which are, in turn, shaped by (and produce):
the political-economic orders: the
social dynamics underlying the various political and class clusterings
of sexual, racial, religious, educational, age, and generational groups
which are, in turn, shaped by (and produce):
world-orders: the social clusterings
and interactions between the supra-national and supra-regional clusterings
of international political economies, multinationals, and cultural
A second train of thought upon
these differences in national rates of inequalities and levels of economic
development: Are things better for both self and society---- i.e., high
levels of trust and cooperation between a people, and low rates of violence,
fear, greed, and moral rot--where inequality and development are relatively
low (but where, say, individuals' basic needs are amply met) or where both
are high? What are the sociological differences between nations where basically
all are poor but equal as opposed to where the poor are well-off relative
to the poor of other nations but where there's an all-too-obvious monstrous
gap between themselves and society's "special" others? Is there an ideal
size of a middle class proportionate to the size (and relative ratio) of
less-than-middle and greater-than-middle classes? And from what (or whose)
perspective are such judgments to be made: materialism's?