There is a familiar story about rising inequality in the United States, and its stock characters are well known. The villains are the fossil-fueled plutocrat, the Wall Street fat cat, the callow tech bro, and the rest of the so-called top 1 percent. The story has a grain of truth to it. But it gets the characters and the plot wrong in basic ways.
It is in fact the top 0. Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0. But not everyone in the Only those in the bottom 90 percent did. Three decades later that had fallen 12 points—exactly as much as the wealth of the 0. In between the top 0. It has held on to its share of a growing pie decade after decade. And as a group, it owns substantially more wealth than do the other two combined. In the tale of three classes see Figure 1 , it is represented by the gold line floating high and steady while the other two duke it out. We are the 9.
So what kind of characters are we, the 9. We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.
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We are also mostly, but not entirely, white. One of the hazards of life in the 9. We gaze upon the 0. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. How high would you have to jump to make it into the 9.
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In financial terms, the measurement is easy and the trend is unmistakable. In , you would have needed to multiply your wealth six times. By , you would have needed to leap twice as high—increasing your wealth fold—to scrape into our group. On this measure, the s look much like the s.
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That is not a typo. That and another , cups of coffee will get you into the 9. N one of this matters, you will often hear, because in the United States everyone has an opportunity to make the leap: Mobility justifies inequality. In the United States, it also turns out not to be true as a factual matter. The strength of the rubber determines how hard it is for you to escape the rung on which you were born.
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If your parents are high on the ladder, the band will pull you up should you fall; if they are low, it will drag you down when you start to rise. An IGE of one says that the destiny of a child is to end up right where she came into the world. Today, it is about 0. IGE is now higher here than in almost every other developed economy. The story becomes even more disconcerting when you see just where on the ladder the tightest rubber bands are located. Canada, for example, has an IGE of about half that of the U.
The difference is in what happens at the extremes.
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Here in the land of opportunity, the taller the tree, the closer the apple falls. They wash up together on every shore. Across countries, the higher the inequality, the higher the IGE see Figure 2. But around the world and throughout history, the wealthy have advanced the crystallization process in a straightforward way. They have taken their money out of productive activities and put it into walls.
Throughout history, moreover, one social group above all others has assumed responsibility for maintaining and defending these walls. Its members used to be called aristocrats. The main difference is that we have figured out how to use the pretense of being part of the middle as one of our strategies for remaining on top. Krueger liked the graph shown in Figure 2 so much that he decided to give it a name: the Great Gatsby Curve. It was published in , just as special counsel was turning up evidence that bonds from that company had found their way into the hands of the secretary of the interior.
Stewart was running away from subpoenas to testify before the United States Senate about his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. We are only now closing in on the peak of inequality that his generation achieved, in But it can buy a private detective. Grandmother was a Kentucky debutante and sometime fashion model kind of like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby , weirdly enough , so she knew what to do when her eldest son announced his intention to marry a woman from Spain.
Grandmother instituted an immediate and total communications embargo.
When children came, Grandmother at last relented. Determined to do the right thing, she arranged for the new family, then on military assignment in Hawaii, to be inscribed in the New York Social Register. She did have a point, even if her facts were wrong. Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it.
Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. They define us. We are the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs. We are so far from the not-so-good people on all of these dimensions, we are beginning to resemble a new species. The polite term for the process is assortative mating.
The phrase is sometimes used to suggest that this is another of the wonders of the internet age, where popcorn at last meets butter and Yankees fan finds Yankees fan. In fact, the frenzy of assortative mating today results from a truth that would have been generally acknowledged by the heroines of any Jane Austen novel: Rising inequality decreases the number of suitably wealthy mates even as it increases the reward for finding one and the penalty for failing to do so.
According to one study, the last time marriage partners sorted themselves by educational status as much as they do now was in the s. For most of us, the process is happily invisible. But sometimes—Grandmother understood this well—extra measures are called for.
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Ivy Leaguers looking to mate with their equals can apply to join a dating service called the League. It is misleading to think that assortative mating is symmetrical, as in city mouse marries city mouse and country mouse marries country mouse. A better summary of the data would be: Rich mouse finds love, and poor mouse gets screwed. It turns out—who knew? According to the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, 60 years ago just 20 percent of children born to parents with a high-school education or less lived in a single-parent household; now that figure is nearly 70 percent.
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Among college-educated households, by contrast, the single-parent rate remains less than 10 percent. Since the s, the divorce rate has declined significantly among college-educated couples, while it has risen dramatically among couples with only a high-school education—even as marriage itself has become less common. The rate of single parenting is in turn the single most significant predictor of social immobility across counties, according to a study led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty.
None of which is to suggest that individuals are wrong to seek a suitable partner and make a beautiful family. People should—and presumably always will—pursue happiness in this way.
We may have studied Shakespeare on the way to law school, but we have little sense for the tragic possibilities of life. The fact of the matter is that we have silently and collectively opted for inequality, and this is what inequality does. It turns marriage into a luxury good, and a stable family life into a privilege that the moneyed elite can pass along to their children.
This divergence of families by class is just one part of a process that is creating two distinct forms of life in our society. In 19th-century England, the rich really were different.
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