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Defining Inequality Down


Since the recession of 2008, it has become increasingly apparent that for the past four decades the majority of the American population has gotten a raw economic deal. Computer applications and internet technology have made accessible raw data from the Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and other government, academic, and think tank sources. These data, honestly conveyed by such liberal think tanks as the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, provide not just debatable but incontrovertible evidence of class warfare, stagnant wages, increasing inequality and poverty, a transformed and diminished middle class, and an outlandishly wealthy ownership class, especially among financiers. In addition, they find that government policies aid and abet all of the above. At bottom, virtually all of the income and wealth gains resulting from the increased productivity of all workers have accrued to the upper quintile of families, and disproportionately to the one percent or even fewer.

In the midst of hardcore justifications of the wonders and ultimate justice of capitalism and entrepreneurship, one finds—more interestingly, I think—softcore and “centrist” analysis, rationalization, and ultimately denial of the long-term implications of neoliberal policies. These analyses originate from several data sources, including the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and the Pew Economic Mobility Project. In passing I recommend a much-needed critique by Salvatore Babones of the Michigan/Pew findings.

In the mainstream media, the Brookings Institution has been a primary transmitter and ideological shaper of such data, through the policy pronouncements of Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins and its somewhat perversely named “Center on Children and Families.” The fact that both have academic pedigrees and some measure of liberal respectability does not diminish their trivialization of fundamental issues and their rationalizations for policies that can only perpetuate long-term trends, with dire consequences for the less privileged. In the tradition of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, they continue to use social science to blame the victims of our rigged economic system.

Their primary tactic is to ignore the trends mentioned above and to focus on the allegedly persistent consensus of Americans that economic opportunity and mobility—the “American Dream”—is valued more than a broadly egalitarian society. On this basis, massive accumulations of wealth by very few are of literally no interest in comparison to data on marginal intergenerational economic mobility and the behaviors required to maintain or achieve middle class status—regardless of the increasingly tenuous conditions of that status, which also are of no interest. Moreover, mimicking the tactics of the more avowedly conservative Heritage Foundation, Haskins egregiously argues that economic inequality itself is over-stated: “The seemingly straightforward story of income inequality therefore turns out not to be so simple. It is a tale of subtle hues, not stark contrasts, and some of the most basic claims thrown around in the media turn out to be rather dubious.”

On a practical level, Haskins and Sawhill focus on the relationship between formal education and economic outcomes, regardless of slow economic growth, low-paying jobs, and growing student debt, and regardless of the intractable reality that more schooling for more people cannot possibly in and of itself address the structural nature of poverty in relation to our economy, or the stagnation and struggles of the middle class.

In relation to this emphasis on education, young people are advised by Sawhill on how to best avoid staying or becoming poor:

“In later research, Ron Haskins and I learned that if individuals do just three things—finish high school, work full time and marry before they have children—their chances of being poor drop from 15 percent to 2 percent. Mitt Romney has cited this research on the campaign trail, but these issues transcend presidential politics. Stronger public support for single-parent families—such as subsidies or tax credits for child care, and the earned-income tax credit — is needed, but no government program is likely to reduce child poverty as much as bringing back marriage as the preferable way of raising children.

“The government has a limited role to play. It can support local programs and nonprofit organizations working to reduce early, unwed childbearing through teen-pregnancy prevention efforts, family planning, greater opportunities for disadvantaged youth or programs to encourage responsible relationships.

“But in the end, Dan Quayle was right. Unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend—bringing up baby alone—may be irreversible.”

Ultimately, what these “centrist” social policy analysts have to offer is not only denial and rationalization of economic inequality in an “opportunity society,” but patronizing lectures about responsibility to those who bear the brunt of our collective unwillingness to face poverty and eliminate it. Moreover, they haven’t a word to say about the responsibility of those who benefit most handsomely from the desperate status quo and the misery of others.

Why do conservatives need Charles Murray and Thomas Sowell when they’ve got Sawhill and Haskins?

David Green lives in Urbana, IL. He can be reached at:


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David Green lives in Champaign, IL and can be reached at

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