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Inequality and American Democracy

Inequality and American Democracy

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In Inequality and American Democracy, editors Lawrence Jacobs and Theda Skocpol headline a distinguished group of political scientists in assessing whether rising economic inequality now threatens hard-won victories in the long struggle to achieve political equality in the United States.
In Inequality and American Democracy, editors Lawrence Jacobs and Theda Skocpol headline a distinguished group of political scientists in assessing whether rising economic inequality now threatens hard-won victories in the long struggle to achieve political equality in the United States.

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Published by: Russell Sage Foundation on Oct 31, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Chapter OneAmerican Democracyin an Era ofRising Inequality
Lawrence R. JacobsTheda Skocpol
Equal political voice
and democratically responsive government arewidely cherished American ideals—yet as the United States aggressivelypromotes democracy abroad, these principles are under growing threat inan era of persistent and rising inequalities at home. Disparities of income,wealth, and access to opportunity are growing more sharply in the UnitedStates than in many other nations, and gaps between races and ethnicgroups persist. Progress toward expanding democracy may have stalled,and in some arenas reversed.Generations of Americans have worked to equalize citizen voice acrosslines of income, race, and gender. Today, however, the voices of Americancitizens are raised and heard unequally. The privileged participate morethan others and are increasingly well organized to press their demands ongovernment. Public officials, in turn, are much more responsive to theprivileged than to average citizens and the less affluent. The voices of cit-izens with lower or moderate incomes are lost on the ears of inattentivegovernment officials, while the advantaged roar with a clarity and consis-tency that policymakers readily hear and routinely follow. The scourge ofovert discrimination against African Americans and women has been re-placed by a more subtle but potent threat—the growing concentration ofthe country’s wealth, income, and political influence in the hands of thefew.These are the conclusions that the Task Force on Inequality and Ameri-can Democracy established by the American Political Science Associationin 2002 reached. As one of several task forces recently formed to enhancethe public relevance of political science, this group of scholars was chargedwith reviewing and assessing the best current scholarship about thehealth and functioning of U.S. democracy over recent decades, in a era of
expanding social rights yet rising economic inequality.
Speaking in itsown voice and on the authority of the task force members alone, the groupdrew conclusions after surveying available evidence about three impor-tant, interlinked areas of concern: citizen participation, government re-sponsiveness, and the impact of public policies on social inequalities andpolitical participation. The core chapters of this book present in-depth re-views of research findings on these issues. With input and advice fromother task force members, each chapter was prepared by a working groupof scholars listed as the authors of that chapter.This introduction sets the context for detailed explorations of citizenparticipation, government responsiveness, and public policymaking. We begin with evidence about the changing patterns of inequality in theUnited States, and then consider why recent rising economic inequalitymay be of special concern. Although Americans tolerate varied fortunesproduced by the market, they worry when economic disparities threatenequal citizen voice and undermine government responsiveness to theneeds and values of the majority. Americans want their democracy to en-sure and expand equal opportunity for all citizens. The research reviewedin this book speaks to basic concerns about the health and prospects ofU.S. democracy.
American society has become both more and less equal in recent decades.Following the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, racial segre-gation and exclusion were no longer legal or socially acceptable. Whitesand African Americans began to participate together in schools and col-leges, the job market, and political and civic organizations. Gender barri-ers have also been breached since the 1960s, with women now able to pur-sue most of the same economic and political opportunities as men. Manyother previously marginalized groups have also gained rights to partici-pate fully in American institutions and have begun to demand—and tovarying degrees enjoy—the dignity of equal citizenship (Skrentny 2002).But as U.S. society has become more integrated across the previous bar-riers of race, ethnicity, gender, and other long-standing forms of social ex-clusion, it has experienced growing gaps of income and wealth. This con-clusion emerges from large bodies of authoritative government andnongovernment data, analyzed by researchers using diverse methodolo-gies.
The critical questions we address here are how the relative share ofincome or wealth going to different segments of American society has
2Inequality and American Democracy
changed over time and how it compares to distributions in other ad-vanced industrialized countries committed to private enterprise. Numer-ous independent studies find that the distribution of economic resourcesin American society has become increasingly concentrated among themost affluent over the past three decades to a degree not found abroad. To be sure, the nation as a whole has become more affluent as absolute levelsof income and wealth have risen. Alarmingly, however, rising affluence issharply concentrated in the very top of American society. Gaps of incomeand wealth have grown not just between the poor and the rest of society, but also between privileged professionals, managers, and business own-ers on the one hand, and the middle strata of regular white-collar and blue-collar middle class on the other hand. The rich and the super-richhave appropriated a growing share of wealth and income since the mid-1970s.Perfect income equality would mean that each fifth of the population(that is, each quintile) would receive 20 percent of the country’s income.
In 2001, the most affluent fifth received 47.7 percent of family income; themiddle class (the third and fourth fifths) earned 15.5 percent and 22.9 per-cent, respectively, and the bottom two quintiles each received less than 10percent. Put simply, the richest 20 percent enjoyed nearly half of the coun-try’s income—and fully 21 percent of family income went to the top 5 per-cent of Americans.The rich, of course, have always enjoyed a disproportionate hold overincome. The top quintile has cornered more than 40 percent of the coun-try’s income since at least 1947. But patterns of income growth across seg-ments of the American population have shifted radically over time. Fortwenty years after World War II, the hold of the top fifth on the country’sincome was slightly weakening—as income at the top grew less rapidlythan income in the middle and at the bottom—but after 1973 the trend to-ward income equalization reversed. Figure 1.1 displays the sharply differ-ent distribution of income growth that prevailed in 1947 to 1973 versus1973 to 2000. After 1973, income growth was clearly much more rapid forthose in the top fifth than for all other Americans, and growth was espe-cially anemic toward the bottom. What is more, even within the top fifth,rates of gain were especially fast for the richest 5 percent and fastest of allfor the fabulously wealthy top 1 percent.Even as the distribution of income has tilted sharply toward the top, themost affluent have amassed an even larger slice of the country’s wealth(including stock holdings, mutual funds, retirement savings, ownershipof property, and other assets). Table 1.1 is based on a survey of consumerfinances conducted by the Federal Reserve Board in 1998 and shows the
 American Democracy in an Era of Rising Inequality3

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