An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.


Edward N. Wolff's Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership 1983-1998 A 1979 Carnegie study ("Small Futures: 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, the 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:

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).

How do individuals feel about such unequal access to the American Dream and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots?  Or do they not even know?  See Demos's "Public Opinion on Poverty, Income Inequality and Public Policy 1996-2001."  Are there limits to the degree of inequality before the social contract is voided?  Listen to Robert Reich's video "How Unequal Can America Get Before We Snap?"


Of interest here are the ways in which 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 out: