How are wealth and income distibuted? Exploring U.S. socioeconomic inequality

The Delta Days luncheon lecture facilitated by Dr. Jon Leydens discussed the question, “Why is the subject of socioeconomic inequality taboo?” and explained that the subject has to do with identity in how we perceive social class.
When it comes to wealth and income, in the United States, the top 4% hold more of the wealth distribution than the bottom 90%, but hold less of the income distribution. This shows that the wealthy are not necessarily wealthy because of a high-paying occupation, but rather that many the top 4% inherited their wealth.

This directly contradicts the Horacio Alger hypothesis, which as Leydens explained, is the idea that what gets one ahead are their aspirations, that working hard is the key to the “American Dream.” In the last three decades, the bottom 90% has seen a 15% increase in wages, minority groups have trended upward in completing education, but the gap has increased. Homeownership, another indicator of moving towards the “American Dream” for a family, has increased from 38% to 44% from 1960 to 2010. This is because the median family income has increased overall, but this has been mostly for Whites. Despite Americans as a whole reaching aspirations, the gap between the wealthy and poor continues to widen, and if trends continue, the middle class will be effectively eliminated.

According to Leydens, capital shapes the basis of socioeconomic inequality. Human capital, or education and credentials are still more likely to be obtained by an apathetic student with upper-class parents than hard-working students of a lower class. Values, habits, tastes, and cultural capital vary from culture to culture and class to class, and as a result, different classes are unlikely to interact with each other. Social capital is key to getting jobs and promotions. It is all about who you know and networks can be more beneficial than credentials. But many middle and lower class members do not have the “right combination” of human capital. That is, their capital is not necessarily bad, but the top 1% skews the system.

All of this is the cause of the rich getting richer, the poor sinking deeper into poverty, and the middle class becoming hollowed out. The U.S. Gini coefficient, an index of economic inequality, shows that out of all developed industrialized countries, the U.S. is the most unequal. Leydens discussed the consequences of these trends, but did not offer any solutions. Rather, he hoped to spur further pondering and discussion of this issue.



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