“America is the land of opportunity – there is no other country where I could have done this,” declared Elon Musk in 2020. He is founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and has a current estimated net worth of $254 billion.
But is it a land of opportunity for all?
In January 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2020, there were 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019 – that’s an official poverty rate of 11.4 percent, up 1.0 percentage point from 10.5 percent in 2019. The “poverty threshold” for a four-person family in 2020 was $26,496.
The Census Bureau also reported that between 2019 and 2020, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites and Hispanics. Among non-Hispanic Whites, 8.2 percent were in poverty in 2020, while Hispanics had a poverty rate of 17.0 percent. In addition, Black Americans had the highest poverty rate at 19.5 percent.
Economic inequality involves differences between (i) household income (often determined by wages) and (ii) personal or household wealth (determined by the value of assets such as a home or a savings account, minus outstanding debt [e.g., mortgage or car loan]). Such inequality reverberates through innumerable aspects of both personal and social. Such inequality has increasingly come to (re)define “opportunity” — let alone life — in today’s America.
The economic difference between Musk’s wealth and the U.S. poverty rate illustrates the one – and perhaps gravest — form of inequality that defines American today, income and wealth inequality. As Kimberly Amadeo points out, “Between 1979 and 2007, after-tax income increased by 275% for the most affluent 1% of households. It rose by 65% for the top fifth. For the bottom fifth, it only increased by 18%, even adding all income from Social Security, welfare, and other government payments.”
More revealing, the Federal Reserve reports that in 1989 the top 1 percent controlled 23.5 percent of the nation’s wealth and, in 2022, its share had increased to 31.8 percent or $44.9 trillion. As Warren Buffett once said, “There’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.”
Amadeo identifies the process of “class warfare” as “structural inequality,” noting that it “is a system of privilege created by institutions within an economy.” She argues that such inequality involves “the law, business practices, and government policies. They also include education, health care, and the media.” She adds most pointedly:
They are powerful socializing agents that tell us what we can achieve within society. Inequality is structural when policies keep some groups of people from obtaining the resources to better their lives. They do not have a chance to pursue their idea of happiness.
She warns, “Structural inequality clouds this vision and limits economic growth for the whole society.”
The U.S. of A. is a capitalist nation with the “marketplace” mediating nearly-all social relations and, sadly, increasingly more and more aspects of personal life.
Inequality in America? Let us count the ways.
Some of the ways are obvious even to those who close their eyes to the world around them. They include:
This involves discrimination based on sex or gender causing one sex or gender to be routinely privileged or prioritized over another. And guess who still remain privileged?
Pew Research reports “the gender gap in pay has remained relatively stable in the United States over the past 15 years or so.” In 2020, it reports, “women earned 84% of what men earned.” It further points out, “based on this estimate, it would take an extra 42 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2020
The U.S. has struggled over racial inequality since before it formally became a nation and fought a civil war over it and now, a century-and-a-half later, it still persists.
A 2018 Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis concluded, “The historical data also reveal that no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years.”
Racial inequality persists through the unequal distribution of economic opportunity, education, healthcare and neighborhood conditions. It involves racial disparities in wealth, education, employment, housing, mobility, health, rates of arrest and incarceration, to name but a few factors.
Of special concern, the nation’s demographic character is fundamentally changing. As the 2020 Census makes clear that the demographic clock is ticking against the notion that the U.S. is a “white” nation. The racial/ethnic composition of the country is changing and, by 2050, the U.S. is projected be a “majority-minority” country, with white non-Hispanics making up less than half of the total population.
The Sentencing Project reports that “Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is roughly five times the rate of white Americans.” Yet, Black or African Americans make up only 13.6 percent of the nation’s population.
A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that “dying at the hands of law enforcement is a leading cause of death among young Black men.”
Going further, it noted that “1 in 1,000 Black men and boys can be expected to be killed by police at some point in their lifetime.” It also notes that that Black males are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white males.”
Health and health care reflect the endemic disparities defining the broader inequities, especially racial discrimination.
Amidst the Covid pandemic, the U.S. was characterized by zones of “vaccine deserts,” geographic areas where people have little or no convenient access to vaccines. According to one estimate, 17 million people live in rural vaccine deserts and 50 million people live in urban vaccine deserts.
The outcomes from these deserts is obvious from the rates of Covid sicknesses and deaths experienced throughout the country.
The U.S. is becoming an ever-increasing urban nation with about 83 percent of the population living in cities. Rural America is losing it population to more attractive urban centers, most often supporting Democrats.
During the decade following the Great Recession of 2007–2009, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in rural America lagged behind urban GDP growth. Rural areas in the aggregate experienced post-recession growth of 14.8 percent while urban areas registered 19.2 percent growth.
These are but some of “inequalities” that define 21st century America and there are still others.
Inequality in America takes many forms and structural inequality is significantly higher here than in almost any other developed nation — and its increasing.
And as inequality increases so does political polarization. A Pew Research report finds that “Democrats and Democratic leaners are much more likely than Republicans and those who lean to the GOP to say reducing economic inequality should be a top priority for the government (61% vs 20%).” It goes further, noting: “Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to say there’s too much economic inequality in the U.S. these days (78% vs. 41%).
This deepening political divide is most evident in higher vs lower income communities throughout the country. In the 2016 election, “Trump votes was higher in counties with a higher share of white, middle-income, US-born, rural and less-educated voters. In that more unequal states were more likely to vote for Trump.”
Insight into the issue of income and voting is further revealed in a CBS survey for the 2020 elections. It found that for families with income under $50,000, 55 percent voted for Biden while 44 percent voted for Trump; for families with income of $50,000 or more 51 percent voted for Biden while 47 percent voted for Trump. However, for families with incomes of over $100,000, 54 percent voted for Trump while 42 percent voted for Biden.
Inequality will likely increase as we face the 2022 congressional and the 2024 presidential elections, and political divisions only intensify. A new America, the land of inequality, is taking shape.
This article is dedicated to Barbara Ehrenreich author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001).