Monday, June 06, 2005

Class in America

Jennifer Ladd and Felice Yeskel review the recent articles on class in America that have appeared in the NY Times and WSJ.

They write:

These feature stories are not news to many close observers of U.S. culture and economics. In the last three decades, we've become a vastly more unequal society. The rungs of the ladder of opportunity are weakening, threatening our national self-image as a meritocratic opportunity society. Three years ago, British commentator Will Hutton observed that "U.S. society is polarizing and its social arteries are hardening. The sumptuousness and bleakness of the respective lifestyle of the rich and poor represent a scale of difference in opportunity and wealth that is also medieval -- and a standing offence to the American expectation that everyone has the opportunity for life, liberty, and happiness." But these current articles sound a cultural and economic policy alarm bell. One important finding is that inequality matters.

Many progressives have argued that these inequality trends are bad for the economy, our democracy and culture. But many conservatives and some liberals, while expressing discomfort with the accelerating income and wealth gap of the last three decades, believe that inequality is the price we pay to maintain a dynamic, growing, and opportunity-creating society. As long as there is mobility, they argue, we should tolerate high levels of inequality. Indeed, the culture has celebrated the rising number of millionaires and billionaires as a harbinger of broader prosperity.

But if mobility is indeed stalling out -- and one's opportunity is tied increasingly to inherited privilege or born disadvantage, then the defense of inequality vanishes. Too much inequality can lead to worsened opportunity.

It is unlikely that either newspaper series will expose the ways in which wealthy families and corporate CEOs use their money and power to rewrite the rules of the game, contributing to the erosion of opportunity. Efforts to abolish the inheritance tax and shift the tax burden off of investors and onto wage-earners directly undermine mobility. Tax cuts lead to budget cuts, leading many states to cut education spending and financial aid for higher education. At a time when advancing up the economic ladder is increasingly tied to attending a four-year college program, the opportunity is more out of reach for poor and working class young adults. Meanwhile, elected officials are reluctant to pass legislation or make the educational investments that contribute to a level playing field. So as we hard-wire inequality into the rules of the economy, addressing our collective confusion about class becomes all the more important.

One of the dramatic findings in the first Times article is the glaring disparity between the public perception of mobility in American and the reality. Americans overwhelmingly believe that we live in a mobile society. Half of those polled believe they have a chance to become financially wealthy. But the data now shows that the U.S. has less mobility than the countries of Europe, which we always thought of as having rigid class and caste systems.
Ladd and Yeskel continue, adding a wrinkle to the discussion:
Those who are raised poor and working class are different because people are more likely to die from the manifestations of class oppression: poor health care and food, stress, overwork, etc. Our classist system provides real material rewards and benefits for owning class and upper middle class people at the expense of poor and working class people. But even owning class people frequently suffer alienation and isolation that deprives them of meaningful connections with all of humanity. The premise of a meritocratic society is that people earn and get what they deserve, based on their effort, drive and intelligence. But if a society advertises itself as a meritocracy, but in practice allocates success based on hereditary advantage, how are those who are not winners supposed to respond? Such a bind leads many poor and working people to internalize their shame and blame, instead of demanding that the society live up to its promise of opportunity.

This internalized oppression plays itself out in violence, put-downs, and ways we might hold our children back from their potential. This dynamic limits each of our potential, our sense of self worth and our ability to bring forward our gifts to the world.
This angle is one that's only recently starting to get attention from social scientists. The fact is that inequality doesn't just mandate that certain people live more luxurious lives than others. The findings seem to suggest a direct correlation between a society's collective health and its degree of equality.

(via Democratic Left Infoasis)