“Inequality” is suddenly fashionable. I do not mean that word to undermine its importance, but rather to note that, despite its perennial importance, inequality is only occasionally the object of sustained public engagement. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are focusing supporters’ attention on economic inequality in the United States; arguably their success in doing so rests on the fact that Americans were already exercised about it. Public media are reinforcing the new fashion. A LexisNexis Academic search of broadcast transcripts from eleven news programs found 514 uses of “inequality” in the headline, keyword, or lead in the five years after January 1, 2006—but three times as many uses (1623) in the less than five years since January 1, 2011.

“’Inequality’ is suddenly fashionable.”

Even if some of this increase is due to the growth of these media, much is substantive. Stable print media show the same trend: “inequality” appeared in the headline or lead of 182 New York Times articles in the five years from January 1, 2006 to December 31, 2010, and in 794 articles in the less than five years since then. Scholars’ attention to inequality has grown apace. Wikipedia reports that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century had sold 1.5 million copies within eighteen months of publication; Anthony Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done?, Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality, and Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics are only a few of the newly prominent analyses with which we can educate our students and ourselves.

As with every worthwhile topic in academic life, new research begets the need for more research. In economic terms, what is “inequality?” How much is too much, or too little? Why does it grow or recede; what are its effects? In political terms, why does anger about, or justification of, inequality grow or recede at particular historical moments, in particular countries, or in particular spheres of life? When does frustration morph into a protest or electoral movement? How do public policies respond? In sociological terms, how do different forms of inequality reinforce, offset, or develop out of one another? This brief essay cannot answer those questions; instead I describe a course of graduate education at my university, Harvard, which aims to facilitate research on answers, and make a few observations about the complexities of studying inequality.

The Harvard Social Policy and Inequality Programs

Harvard has offered an interdisciplinary PhD in social policy for about two decades. It is a

collaboration between the Government and Sociology Departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Social Policy faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School. The program is designed for students who wish to combine the full disciplinary depth of a PhD in political science or sociology with a multidisciplinary program of study on issues of social policy.

Applicants are admitted separately into the Government (a.k.a. political science) or Sociology Departments and also the Social Policy program. They take the same first-year courses as students admitted only to Government or Sociology, so that they are fully integrated into their disciplinary home. The program becomes “discipline-plus” in the second and later years of graduate training, when students take a sequence of interdisciplinary courses, develop policy-oriented dissertation projects, and otherwise become more incorporated into the Harvard Kennedy School and gain expertise in the research literatures on policy-making or particular policy arenas.

Adding to the Social Policy program is the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy. Students who have completed a first or second year of PhD study in various social science disciplines can apply to become a fellow during the rest of their graduate career. The program’s purpose is to create a network of scholars, to extend graduate training and research beyond the home discipline, and to deepen students’ focus on inequality as a central aspect of most social policy issues;

[T]he Multidisciplinary Program explores how certain research puzzles might be more effectively addressed with a multidisciplinary perspective. It aims to produce scholars grounded in the recognized disciplines of their home departments, but who can also navigate the models, methods, and evidence of scholarship in adjacent social science fields. . . . [T]he program aims to enrich and extend the work of Harvard Ph.D. students with shared interests in issues of inequality.

Students admitted through these two streams share classes, coauthor with one another (and with faculty), and participate in the same seminars and other events. More importantly, they share a lot of intellectual, normative, and behavioral commitments that, to some degree, set them apart from applicants to a “regular” social science PhD program. After several years on admissions committees, one can readily spot a student for whom one or both of these programs are the right fit, even if the student does not always realize it. They often have unusual backgrounds, disparate experiences and jobs, a little too much ideological commitment; above all, their scholarly ambitions are organized around a real-world problem or situation rather than a discipline, method, research literature, philosophical conundrum, institution, location, time period, or other organizing logic more typical in political science, sociology, economics, history, psychology, or anthropology. They are usually wonderful—and occasionally exasperating—students and colleagues.

Issues emerging from experience with the Harvard PhD programs

These two programs spawn, of course, endless complexities about how to admit the right students, design the right curriculum, motivate faculty and students in the most fruitful directions, snare the best jobs, and so on. (I would also add that Princeton University has a similar program for PhD students in the social sciences; it was mostly designed by Katherine Newman, who was one of the originators of the Harvard program.) But more interesting are three substantive issues that I have noted over two decades of involvement with Harvard’s graduate training in the study of inequality.

“By definition, any dimension of inequality has a middle and a top, as well as a bottom.”

First, participants in the Social Policy and Inequality programs (faculty and students alike) have usually engaged with policies focused on the bottom end of various dimensions of inequality—welfare, child support services, incarceration, the educational test score gap, undocumented migration, lack of participation or influence in the political system, labor market failures, the psychology of subordination, and so forth. But of course, by definition any dimension of inequality has a middle and a top, as well as a bottom.

Assisted by a recent donor, the Harvard programs are beginning to promote sustained attention to the top 1 percent, or more broadly the winners as well as the losers in a system of inequality. This new focus raises new questions. Scholars need to develop more robust theories about whether in fact “the only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.” We lack strong arguments, for example, about whether the movement from deeply poor through the middle class to the very rich is as continuous with regard to political participation, labor market involvement, social capital, or democratic commitments as it is with regard to income and wealth. There are a lot of political claims, but relatively little analysis, about the circumstances in which there are trade-offs between social policies that redistribute resources or power downward to the poor and those that redistribute upward to the rich or horizontally within the middle class. More deeply, we need to rethink the old question of whether some become poorer or less powerful because others are becoming richer or more powerful, whether the rise in inequality results from some dynamic other than zero-sum competition, or whether the rise in inequality can or does raise the bottom end of distributions along with the top end. In short, more scholarly attention to social policies that affect the middle class and wealthy will complement our scholarship on social policies for (or aimed at) the poor and will help to explain how and why social policies affect people in different statuses.

Another issue that has, for me, emerged while working in the Harvard programs on inequality and social policy focuses on interactions among different dimensions of inequality. A central tenet of democratic theory, or at least of modern democratic ideology, is “one person, one vote”; each citizen has the same political power in an election as every other citizen, regardless of disparities in wealth, status, education, or race. But that view has seemed naïve. Through the financing of campaigns, lobbying, communication in meetings and conferences, old school ties, insider knowledge, racial privilege or disadvantage, and various other links and pressures, the wealthy have demonstrably exerted more political power than the non-wealthy. Perhaps, however, assumptions of political powerlessness among ordinary citizens are themselves being upended in the United States; some interpret the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as evidence that the powerbrokers have lost their disproportionate political influence and that the sheer numbers implied by “one person one vote” may, at least on occasion, offset inequalities of wealth and status. Even more puzzlingly, a decrease of inequality between the ostensible powerbrokers and “ordinary” citizens may have the effect of increasing overall societal inequality, at least if Donald Trump wins the presidency and carries out some of his policy proposals.

“When does increasing inequality indicate social progress, at least relative to some alternative situation?”

A final issue may be the most intractable, and most important, because it is more normative than empirical. When does increasing inequality indicate social progress, at least relative to some alternative situation? Ira Katznelson confronts another version of this question in Fear Itself, when he analyzes the relative or absolute losses suffered by black Americans as Franklin Roosevelt and his Congresses sought to alleviate the worst effects of the Great Depression—mostly for white Americans. However, the case that exercises me the most is that of black Americans. Through the 1960s, a vanishingly small share of the black population in the United States were rich or powerful, and few even reached the middle class or any level of political influence. After several decades of change roughly encompassed by the term “the civil rights revolution,” the Gini index of household income inequality is greater among black Americans (0.499) than among non-Hispanic whites (0.469), Asian Americans (0.463), and Hispanics (of any race) (0.455). That is, there is greater inequality within the black population than within any other American racial or ethnic group.

Compared with the poor in their own group, middle class and affluent members of a given group are increasingly likely to live near others of their class position, marry before having children, survive longer, avoid violent victimization, escape incarceration, finish college, obtain high educational test scores, evade chronic illnesses and obesity, and vote and contribute in other ways to electoral campaigns. Middle class and affluent blacks generally do their best to enjoy the advantages of their resources just as similarly situated Americans of any other group do. One may applaud that capacity as a considerable achievement for civil and individual rights over the past half century; despite continuing racial discrimination, no longer are blacks in the United States prohibited, in ways that whites would not tolerate for themselves, from seeking to use their resources as they wish.

But that achievement comes at a cost. As some black Americans become better off, the worst off “confront the denial of […] many of the indigenous resources and institutions needed for survival,” as Cathy Cohen puts it in her depiction of secondary marginalization. That is, if middle class and affluent blacks choose to live with, work with, marry, attend school with, vote and campaign with, and otherwise connect primarily with others of their class, institutions and practices that have sustained solidarity among blacks may come under great stress. Whether in an era of rising inequality, Americans can both continue to enable people to pursue their own interests and prevent deterioration of the position of the badly-off—or even promote their well-being—is a crucial question for the next few decades.