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Economic Inequality


In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement gave national attention to economic inequality by emphasizing the differences between the “1%” and the “99%.” Proclaiming “We are the 99%,” they decried the concentration of wealth in the richest of the rich and the growing inequality of the last few decades. (See Note 12.24 "People Making a Difference".) The issue of economic inequality merits further attention here.


People Making a Difference


Occupy Wall Street

Before 2011, economic inequality in the United States certainly existed and in fact had increased greatly since the 1970s. However, although economic inequality was a topic of concern to social scientists, it was not a topic of concern to the general news media. Because the news media generally ignored economic inequality, it was also not a topic of concern to the general public.

That all changed beginning on September 17, 2011, when hundreds of people calling themselves “Occupy Wall Street” marched through the financial district in New York City before dozens encamped overnight and for weeks to come. Occupy Wall Street took these actions to protest the role of major banks and corporations in the economic collapse of 2007 and 2008 and to call attention to their dominance over the political process. Within weeks, similar Occupy encampments had spread to more than one hundred cities in the United States and hundreds more across the globe. “We are the 99%,” they said again and again, as “occupy” became a verb heard repeatedly throughout the United States.

By winter, almost all Occupy encampments had ended either because of legal crackdowns or because of the weather conditions. By that time, however, the Occupy protesters had won news media attention everywhere. In a December 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Americans supported the Occupy Wall Street movement, while 35 percent opposed it. Almost half (48 percent) said they agreed with the concerns raised by the movement, compared to 30 percent who said they disagreed with these concerns. In the same poll, 61 percent said the US economic system “unfairly favors the wealthy,” while 36 percent said it was fair to all Americans. In a related area, 77 percent said “there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations.” In all these items, there was a notable difference by political party preference. For example, 91 percent of Democrats agreed that a few rich people and corporations have too much power, compared to 80 percent of Independents and only 53 percent of Republicans.

Regardless of these political differences, Occupy Wall Street succeeded in bringing economic inequality and related issues into the national limelight. In just a few short months in 2011, it made a momentous difference.

Sources: Pew Research Center, 2011; vanden Heuvel, 2012 [29]

Let’s start by defining economic inequality, which refers to the extent of the economic difference between the rich and the poor. Because most societies are stratified, there will always be some people who are richer or poorer than others, but the key question is how much richer or poorer they are. When the gap between them is large, we say that much economic inequality exists; when the gap between them is small, we say that relatively little economic inequality exists.

Considered in this light, the United States has a very large degree of economic inequality. A common way to examine inequality is to rank the nation’s families by income from lowest to highest and then to divide this distribution into fifths. Thus we have the poorest fifth of the nation’s families (or the 20 percent of families with the lowest family incomes), a second fifth with somewhat higher incomes, and so on until we reach the richest fifth of families, or the 20 percent with the highest incomes. We then can see what percentage each fifth has of the nation’s entire income. Figure 12.4 "Share of National Income Going to Income Fifths, 2010" shows such a calculation for the United States. The poorest fifth enjoys only 3.3 percent of the nation’s income, while the richest fifth enjoys 50.2 percent. Another way of saying this is that the richest 20 percent of the population have as much income as the remaining 80 percent of the population.

Figure 12.4 Share of National Income Going to Income Fifths, 2010

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig12_004.jpg

Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2012. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab.

This degree of inequality is the largest in the industrialized world. Figure 12.5 "Income Inequality around the World" compares the inequality among several industrialized nations by dividing the median income of households in the ninetieth percentile (meaning they have more income than 90 percent of all households) by the median income of households in the tenth percentile (meaning they have more income than only 10 percent of all households); the higher this resulting ninetieth percentile/tenth percentile ratio, the greater a nation’s inequality. The ratio for the United States far exceeds that for any other nation.



Figure 12.5 Income Inequality around the World

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig12_005.jpg

Ratio of median income of richest 10 percent in each nation to that of poorest 10 percent.

Source: Data from Mishel, L., Bernstein, J., & Shierholz, H. (2009). The state of working America 2008/2009. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.



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