Janet Gornick and Nathaniel Johnson explore the reasons for growing inequality over the past decades in wealthy countries as well as the significant variation in the extent of inequality across them. Key to understanding these trends, they argue, are tax and income transfer policies that can mitigate inequalities generated through market mechanisms. National differences for these redistributive policy options shape not only the extent of inequality within countries but also the size and shape of the middle class, which has dramatically shrunk in some places but less so in others.
With so much attention to the issue of inequality and its documented growth in the United States and elsewhere, why join the fray? What more is there to say? Quite a bit, we think.
Inequality’s explosive growth in the first decades of the twenty-first century has become a profound concern for scholars. Fueled in part by the publication of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and myriad other studies on the sources and effects of increasing inequality, as well as the significant public attention it has received, inequality has become a rallying cry for many social scientists. With this entirely salutary level of attention come potential complications, both conceptually and institutionally.
Indeed, a sort of “bandwagoning” effect may be underway, and one goal of this series is to shed light on this bandwagoning, a phenomenon that social scientists have long explored from various perspectives (but rarely in analyzing scholarly trends). At least as important, this series solicits essays from leading scholars that engage some of the complexities raised by all the attention—as a way to make sense of current research and debate, to imagine future scholarship, and to think strategically and critically about how scholarship might shape efforts to mitigate the concentration of wealth.
As the issue of inequality has entered public debate and become increasingly prominent in the academy, its meanings and uses have expanded and, at times, absorbed related concepts. Essays in this series attempt to clarify inequality as a concept in both its empirical and normative senses, and to explore its relationship to equality, poverty, social mobility, social justice, and other related constructs of fairness and human well-being. Some contributions will engage recent changes in wealth and income disparities between nation-states and suggest analytical frameworks and tools for thinking about the different directions taken by inequality within and between nations, and about whether and how they are related.
Lastly, the series will feature a set of essays by leaders of university-based institutes and programs devoted to research and training on the topic of inequality. They offer a variety of perspectives on the ways in which inequality as a field of study is being institutionalized in the academy and the diverse set of concepts, disciplines, and methods being mobilized.
Rachel Sherman provides a unique contribution to our What is Inequality? theme by focusing on the very top of the income bracket. Based on research among New Yorkers in the “1 percent,” Sherman uncovers the ways they understand and legitimize their wealth, in part through distinguishing their situation from other people of means who may not be “deserving.” Being legitimately “entitled” to affluence, according to the affluent, is based on a set of personal qualities with little reference to broader structural dimensions of inequality.
Sarah Bruch’s contribution to Items’ "What is Inequality?" theme makes a strong case that scholars need to include a relational perspective in interrogating the roots of inequality. Drawing from her research on how differences in access to quality education shape socioeconomic and political inequalities, Bruch argues that attending to distributional outcomes alone is insufficient in explaining, and ultimately addressing, the ways in which social structural relationships produce inequality and how different forms of inequality reinforce each other.
In the latest essay on "What is Inequality?," Simon Reid-Henry begins by asking, “Where is inequality?” In doing so, he argues that separating out analysis of “within-country” inequality and inequality between nations obscures how they shape and reinforce each other. Reid-Henry suggests that the framing deep poverty as a problem of “international development,” rather than of one of global inequality, limits our analyses and finding prospective solutions.
Tianna Paschel’s contribution to the "Reading Racial Conflict" series takes an international perspective. Her essay examines the roots and persistence of racial inequalities globally through the legacies of colonialism and impact of transnational capitalism. Paschel engages these questions of global justice through the lens of Walter Rodney and his extraordinarily influential book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Paschel argues for the continued relevance of this classic work to understanding today’s global economy and its winners and losers.
In a new contribution to the “What Is Inequality?” series, Julia Lynch asks, “What happens when politicians, policymakers, and even researchers begin to frame the problem of social inequality in health terms?” Through extensive research on health policy debates in Europe, Lynch finds that the otherwise laudable emphasis on the social determinants of health inequality can have counterproductive effects. She particularly focuses on the tendency for health inequality issues to become dominated by health professionals, and to the construal of the issue as so complicated that it draws attention away from economic policy instruments that might more systematically reduce inequalities, including health inequalities.
Pranab Bardhan’s contribution to the “What Is Inequality?” series focuses on the arguments and evidence for whether and how inequality shapes various dimensions of socioeconomic performance. Bardhan finds that, in many areas, there is not a trade-off between inequality and efficiency—indeed, the first may undermine the second. Evidence for the impact of inequality on phenomena that shape economic performance, such as the presence of sociopolitical conflict, is more mixed. Bardhan concludes with a discussion of which inequality matters—that of opportunity or outcome?
This 1976 piece from our archives connects to both our "What is Inequality?" series and a new essay on social science in Africa by Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o. Written by economic historian Sara S. Berry, it reflects on the debates and recommendations made during a September 1975 seminar on inequality in Africa. Berry reports on attempts to communicate across mainstream and Marxist approaches as well as differences in methodology and between objective and subjective approaches to understanding inequality in colonial and postcolonial Africa.
Maximilian Kasy’s contribution to the “What is Inequality?” series adopts a perspective of “normative individualism,” which considers overall social welfare through the lens of individual welfare and acknowledges that policy changes inevitably create winners and losers in terms of inequality. Drawing from his open online textbook on inequality, Kasy encourages attention to welfare weights that reveal “how much social welfare changes when we change individual welfare,” particularly as different individuals affect the aggregate differently, and argues that egalitarian outcomes emerge when greater weight is given to the poor in the policymaking that shapes wealth distribution.
The current focus on inequality, argues Danielle Allen, makes it more imperative than ever to better understand the concept of “equality.” Allen’s essay focuses especially on political equality, which requires attention in its own right and in relation to other dimensions of (in)equality. Through a critical engagement with John Rawls’s work, she argues that public autonomy (“positive liberties”) is central to imagining and realizing political equality.