What we talk about when we talk about inequality
By Neil deMause
In a year that has featured increased coverage of rising economic inequality—helped along by President Barack Obama’s call to rebuild the economy from the “middle out,” and New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s campaign focus on a “tale of two cities”—one of the biggest flurries of attention came in late July, when four professors from Harvard and Berkeley released a study (NBER, 7/13) of economic mobility in the United States. Their finding: Someone hoping to lift themselves from the bottom of the income scale into the middle class or above faces much longer odds in certain parts of the country, particularly the Deep South.
As a result, reported David Leonhardt in a front-page story in the New York Times (7/22/13):
On average, fairly poor children in Seattle—those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution—do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children—those who grew up at the 50th percentile—from Atlanta.
The report made headlines across the nation. “Upward Mobility Is Bay Area Challenge,” reported the Tampa Bay Times (7/23/13). “People born poor [in Ohio urban
areas] are more likely to stay poor,” wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer (7/23/13). The PBS NewsHour (7/24/13) brought on one of the study’s authors, Harvard economist Raj Chetty, to try to answer the question, “Is the American dream alive, and how does it vary across areas of the U.S.?”
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, meanwhile, devoted two separate segments to the story (8/4/13, 8/18/13). First Zakaria interviewed Chetty—plus self-proclaimed “radical centrist” economist Jeff Sachs, libertarian columnist Megan McArdle and Brookings Institution inequality skeptic Scott Winship—to discuss the study. He then delivered an on-air op-ed that cited Canadian economist Miles Corak as noting that “America spends much less on the education and well-being of poor people, especially poor children, than any other rich country”—though Zakaria also noted that “the U.S. has many more broken families, single parents and dysfunctional domestic arrangements than Canada and Europe.”
The mobility study was indeed important news—though it was the rare story that mentioned that if the ability to rise in economic class is your main criterion, the American dream is far more alive in Denmark and the United Kingdom that anywhere in the United States (Guardian, 1/17/12). But in focusing solely on whether some poor Americans can swap places with those in the middle or upper classes—and pinning the blame for those who can’t on poor education or single moms, things that the Harvard/Berkeley study, which focused solely on the role of regressive state tax systems in decreasing income mobility, didn’t address—media coverage skirted the larger issue: the growing distance between top and bottom earners.
Corporate media took far less notice back in January when another of the NBER study’s authors, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, released a report showing that in the first two years of the economic recovery, the top 1 percent of U.S. earners saw their earnings rise by 11.2 percent, while the other 99 percent saw their incomes fall by 0.4 percent. Three weeks later, the New York Times (2/15/13) reported this in its business section under the headline “Incomes Flat in Recovery, but Not for the 1 Percent.” But that was it for attention to the growing gap between rich and poor—unless you count a much-cited Wall Street Journal article (2/13/13) headlined “What Recession? Americans Regain a Craving for Luxury.”