“We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” Associate Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said decades ago during another period of pronounced inequality in America.
Echoing the concern of the Harvard Law School (HLS) graduate, over the past 30 years myriad forces have battered the United States’ legendary reputation as the world’s “land of opportunity.”
The 2008 global economic meltdown that eventually bailed out Wall Street financiers but left ordinary citizens to fend for themselves trained a spotlight on the unfairness of fiscal inequality. The issue gained traction during the Occupy Wall Street protest movement in 2011 and during the successful U.S. Senate campaign of former HLS Professor Elizabeth Warren in 2012.
What was once viewed as a fringe political issue is now at the heart of the angry, populist rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign. Personified by outsider candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, economic inequality has resonated with broad swaths of nervous voters on both the left and right.
Lawrence Katz, the Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), says the most damaging aspects of the gap between the top 1 percent of Americans and everyone else involve the increasing economic and political power that the very rich wield over society, along with a growing educational divide, and escalating social segregation in which the elites live in literal and figurative gated communities.
If the rate of economic mobility — the ability of people to improve their economic station — was higher, he says, our growing income disparity might not be such a problem.
“But what we have been seeing is rising inequality with stagnant mobility, which means that the consequences of where you start out, whether it’s in a poor neighborhood, whether it’s from a single-parent household, are more consequential today than in the past. Your ZIP code and the exact characteristics of your parents seem to matter more,” said Katz. “And that’s quite disturbing.”
The growing gap between the rich and the rest isn’t a matter of who can afford a yacht or a Manhattan penthouse, analysts say. Rather, it’s the crippling nature of these disparities as they touch nearly every aspect of daily lives, from career prospects and educational opportunities to health risks and neighborhood safety.
The widening income gap also has fueled a class-based social disconnect that has produced inequitable educational results. “Now, your family income matters more than your own abilities in terms of whether you complete college,” said Robert Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). “Smart poor kids are less likely to graduate from college now than dumb rich kids. That’s not because of the schools, that’s because of all the advantages that are available to rich kids.”
Economic inequality also feeds the political kind, driving everything from the actions of our political representatives to the quality and quantity of civic engagement, such as voting and community-based public service.
“It’s long been known that the better educated, those with higher incomes, participate more” in politics on “everything from voting to contacting politicians to donating,” said Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at FAS. “What is quite new in recent times is … very systematically, that government really responds much more to the privileged than to even middle-income people who vote.”
Money eases access
The U.S. Supreme Court’s unlacing of campaign-finance laws that limited how much donors could give candidates or affiliate organizations, coupled with allowing donors to shield their identities from public scrutiny, have spawned a financial arms race that requires viable presidential candidates, for example, to solicit donors constantly in a quest to raise $1 billion or more to win.
Given that rulebook, it’s hardly surprising that the political supporters with the greatest access to candidates are usually the very wealthy. Backers with both influence and access often help to shape the political agenda. The result is a kind of velvet rope that can keep those without economic clout on the sidelines, out of the conversation.
“Something like the carried-interest provision in the tax code, when you explain it to ordinary citizens, they don’t like the idea that income earned by investing other people’s money should be taxed at a lower rate than regular wage and salary income. It’s not popular in some broad, polling sense. But many politicians probably don’t realize it at all because … politicians spend a lot of their time asking people to give money to them [who] don’t think it’s a good idea to change that,” said Skocpol. “There’s a real danger that, as wealth and income are more and more concentrated toward the top, it does become a vicious circle.”
“Money has corrupted our political process,” said Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at HLS. In Congress, he said, “They focus too much on the tiny slice, 1 percent, who are funding elections. In the current election cycle [as of October], 158 families have given half the money to candidates. That’s a banana republic democracy; that’s not an American democracy.”
Lessig was so unhappy with how political campaigns are funded that he briefly ran for president on the issue. Reviewing his efforts during a Harvard forum on the topic in November, he described his candidacy as a referendum on the campaign-finance system, but also on the need to reform Congress, which he called a “broken and corrupted institution” undercut by big donors and gerrymandered election districts.
How we got here
Christopher “Sandy” Jencks, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at HKS, believes that the past 30 years of rising American inequality can be attributed to three key factors:
The decline in jobs and employment rates for less-skilled workers, which has increased the number of households with children but no male breadwinner.
The demand for college graduates outpacing the pool of job candidates, adding to the gap between the middle class and upper-middle class.
The share of income gains flowing to the top 1 percent of earners doubling as a result of deregulation, globalization, and speculation in the financial services industry.
The U.S. government does “considerably less” than comparable democracies to even out disposable family incomes, Jencks says. And current state and local tax policies “actually increase income inequality.”
“All the costs and risks of capitalism seem to have been shifted largely to those who work rather than those who invest,” he said.
Compounding the economic imbalance is the unlikely prospect that those at the bottom can ever improve their lot.
“We have some of the lowest rates of upward mobility of any developed country in the world,” said Nathaniel Hendren, an associate professor of economics at FAS who has studied intergenerational mobility and how inequality transmits across generations.