Modern democratic society requires basic equality. Our Founding Fathers understood this point when they drafted the Declaration of Independence with the radical statement, in its time: “All men are created equal.” Citizens must feel that they have a say in political decisions, that they are represented in some way. Citizens must also feel that they have an opportunity to “win” sometime in the future, even if their causes and candidates “lose” today. The opportunity to change government and policy based on citizen interests is central to democracy, and it requires a foundation in interpersonal equality.
Danny Dorling’s provocative book expands upon these insights. He argues that “human beings are happier and healthier the more equal they are, and that this is borne out by looking at statistics from all over the world today – as well as by surveying the whole of human history”. Dorling’s book provides both the statistics and the history to back many of his claims. Most important, he shows how the emergence of greater income equality in the United States between 1928 and 1973 contributed to economic growth, public investment, innovation, and national power as a whole. The “American Century” was built on a more equal society than ever existed before in the country’s history. In 1928 the richest one percent of Americans owned about a fifth (20 percent) of the nation’s total income; in 1973 the richest one percent of Americans owned just 7.7 percent of the nation’s much larger total income.
This pattern has reversed decisively in recent decades. Dorling correctly observes: “Inequalities rose in the 1980s almost as fast as they had fallen in the 1930s. The increases were abrupt, beginning most clearly in 1982, but accelerating in 1986 and 1987, and rising significantly almost every year since.” The differences between rich and poor have grown alarming in a country that includes more billionaires than any other, but also crumbling bridges, roads, and public schools. Wealth has become intensely private; poverty is increasingly public.
The extremes of wealth and poverty in the United States are very real, but they are not historically unique. One could find greater extremes before the 1930s. What is unique today is the stratification between rich and poor – the improbability of poor children becoming rich adults. Those with few economic means are closed off from the educational, cultural, and occupational opportunities that once allowed for mobility up the income ladder. There is no “free land” to till on the frontier and there are few manufacturing jobs for the able-bodied. Public education offered a route to prosperity for millions of Americans (including this writer) in the last century, but it is suffering today from under-funding and inaccessibility. The best public schools are in the richest suburbs; the worst schools are in the poorest rural and inner-city districts. Top public universities, like my own, are becoming too expensive for those with modest means. Most of my students at university are now the children of professionals with college degrees. First-time college kids from modest backgrounds are hard to find. This is particularly true for college-age males, whose educational prospects have stagnated in the last three decades. (They are now less than half the student population at many major universities.)
Dorling is therefore spot on when he writes: “despite rhetoric about the ‘American Dream,’ membership of the richest group in U.S. society is largely determined by how rich your parents were when you were born, and not by your own efforts. The U.S. has one of the lowest rates of social mobility among all nations in the rich world. A child born poor in the U.S. is more likely to die poor than in any other affluent country.“
This is a pressing issue for the future of democracy. If American society is to prosper and innovate in the twenty-first century, those born to modest backgrounds must find ways to improve their professional opportunities. Our society must develop new mechanisms to incorporate the less advantaged into a dynamic economy, encouraging productivity and public contributions, rather than passivity and dependence. In a society where all are equal in the eyes of the law, some Americans are much more equal (and unequal) than others today. Only a re-energized national focus on opportunity, broadly defined, can encourage the greater lived equality that allowed American society to thrive in the middle and late twentieth century.
How can we encourage greater equality? What are the most effective policies? Which institutions are most crucial? Where should government invest? These are the key questions that Dorling’s book inspires. These are the questions that I hope we can discuss today during our online book salon. Let’s hope our politicians and community leaders are listening.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]