“America is the land of opportunity – there is no other country where I could have done this,” declared Elon Musk in 2020. He is founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and has a current estimated net worth of $254 billion.
But is it a land of opportunity for all?
In January 2022, the US Census Bureau reported that in 2020, there were 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019 – that’s an official poverty rate of 11.4 per cent, up 1.0 percentage point from 10.5 per cent in 2019.
The “poverty threshold” for a four-person family in 2020 was $26,496.
The Census Bureau also reported that between 2019 and 2020, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites and Hispanics. Among non-Hispanic Whites, 8.2 per cent were in poverty in 2020, while Hispanics had a poverty rate of 17.0 per cent. In addition, Black Americans had the highest poverty rate at 19.5 per cent.
Economic inequality involves differences between (i) household income (often determined by wages) and (ii) personal or household wealth (determined by the value of assets such as a home or a savings account, minus outstanding debt [e.g., mortgage or car loan]). Such inequality reverberates through innumerable aspects of both personal and social. Such inequality has increasingly come to (re)define “opportunity” – let alone life – in today’s America.
The economic difference between Musk’s wealth and the US poverty rate illustrates the one – and perhaps gravest – form of inequality that defines American today, income and wealth inequality. As Kimberly Amadeo points out, “Between 1979 and 2007, after-tax income increased by 275% for the most affluent 1% of households. It rose by 65% for the top fifth. For the bottom fifth, it only increased by 18%, even adding all income from Social Security, welfare, and other government payments.”
More revealing, the Federal Reserve reports that in 1989 the top 1 per cent controlled 23.5 per cent of the nation’s wealth and, in 2022, its share had increased to 31.8 per cent or $44.9 trillion. As Warren Buffett once said, “There’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.”
Amadeo identifies the process of “class warfare” as “structural inequality,” noting that it “is a system of privilege created by institutions within an economy.” She argues that such inequality involves “the law, business practices, and government policies. They also include education, health care, and the media.” She adds most pointedly:
They are powerful socializing agents that tell us what we can achieve within society. Inequality is structural when policies keep some groups of people from obtaining the resources to better their lives. They do not have a chance to pursue their idea of happiness.
She warns, “Structural inequality clouds this vision and limits economic growth for the whole society.”
The US of A is a capitalist nation with the “marketplace” mediating nearly-all social relations and, sadly, increasingly more and more aspects of personal life.
Inequality in America? Let us count the ways.
Some of the ways are obvious even to those who close their eyes to the world around them. They include:
This involves discrimination based on sex or gender causing one sex or gender to be routinely privileged or prioritized over another. And guess who still remain privileged?
Pew Research reports “the gender gap in pay has remained relatively stable in the United States over the past 15 years or so.” In 2020, it reports, “women earned 84 per cent of what men earned.” It further points out, “based on this estimate, it would take an extra 42 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2020
The US has struggled over racial inequality since before it formally became a nation and fought a civil war over it and now, a century-and-a-half later, it still persists.
A 2018 Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis concluded, “The historical data also reveal that no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years.”
Racial inequality persists through the unequal distribution of economic opportunity, education, healthcare and neighborhood conditions. It involves racial disparities in wealth, education, employment, housing, mobility, health, rates of arrest and incarceration, to name but a few factors.
Of special concern, the nation’s demographic character is fundamentally changing. As the 2020 Census makes clear that the demographic clock is ticking against the notion that the US is a “white” nation. The racial/ethnic composition of the country is changing and, by 2050, the US is projected be a “majority-minority” country, with white non-Hispanics making up less than half of the total population.
The Sentencing Project reports that “Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is roughly five times the rate of white Americans.” Yet, Black or African Americans make up only 13.6 per cent of the nation’s population.
A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that “dying at the hands of law enforcement is a leading cause of death among young Black men.”
Going further, it noted that “1 in 1,000 Black men and boys can be expected to be killed by police at some point in their lifetime.” It also notes that that Black males are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white males.”
Health and health care reflect the endemic disparities defining the broader inequities, especially racial discrimination.
Amidst the Covid pandemic, the US was characterized by zones of “vaccine deserts,” geographic areas where people have little or no convenient access to vaccines. According to one estimate, 17 million people live in rural vaccine deserts and 50 million people live in urban vaccine deserts.
The outcomes from these deserts is obvious from the rates of Covid sicknesses and deaths experienced throughout the country.
Excerpted: ‘America: The Land of Inequality’.