Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Stratification is, basically, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our society. Not just the rich and the poor, but the gap between those who have more wealth than they can waste, let alone use, and those who can not even put a well rounded diet on the table for their families on a daily basis without borrowing against the equity in their house, false money which puts them at risk of losing their home merely to feed their children.

This is a problem that America faces today which is far worse than the war in Iraq, or the threat of a terrorist attack, or whether or not Iran is developing a bomb, and it’s even bigger than the healthcare crisis, free trade or taxes. The latter three issues are part of stratification.

The sociologist Doug Masseyhas published a new book Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System (Russell Sage, 2007), and Eric Alterman quoted an excerpt from it in Altercation today. I’m going to excerpt from his excerpt. I don’t usually do this much quoting in my blog posts, but this is really powerful stuff.

Since the mid-1970s, the United States has become a vastly more stratified society. Among the world's developed nations, it has by far the highest inequalities of income and wealth. The rise in inequality has been attributed to a variety of factors, including globalization, technological change, and market segmentation. Nonetheless, all countries compete in the same global economy and face the same technological and market conditions, yet the United States is unique among advanced nations in the degree to which it allows these large, macro-level forces to generate inequality.


The decision by the Democratic Party to embrace civil rights in the 1960s promoted a mass exodus of Southerners from the party and the estrangement of blue collar voters in the North, putting an end to the New Deal coalition.

On the heels of this realignment, the rules of the American political economy were rewritten to favor the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes. Unions were weakened, entry level wages reduced, access to social protections curtailed, anti-poverty spending cut back, and taxes on lower income families were raised while those on upper income families were reduced, yielding a sharp reduction in the size of the welfare state and a significant decline in the social well-being of most Americans. As millions of Americans resorted to borrowing in a vain attempt to maintain living standards, the real interest on credit card debt was increased and bankruptcy laws tightened.

The new choreography of rising income inequality and increasing political polarization was reinforced by the emergence of a new geography of inequality characterized by greater class segregation and the spatial concentration of both affluence and poverty. Increasingly the poor have come to live apart from the affluent in communities and neighborhoods inhabited primarily by other poor people, while affluent families have come to separate themselves from the poor within communities and neighborhoods inhabited by other affluent people.

That there is nothing inevitable about the high level of inequality prevailing in the United States is suggested by a cross-national comparison of income inequality before and after taxes. Before taxes, U.S. income inequality is by no means exceptional compared with other developed nations. Indeed, it is roughly the same as in Sweden and Germany and considerably less than in Belgium and France.

Taxation works to redistribute income in all countries, but the extent of the redistribution is much less in the United States. After taxes and transfers, income inequality in Belgium, France, Germany, and Sweden drops to low levels. It drops in the United States too -- just not nearly as much. It is only after taxes that America emerges as the most unequal of all developed nations, with a level of income inequality that is 50% greater than in Belgium and 33% greater than in France. Thus inequality in the United States is not an axiomatic result of globalization or technological change. It is a result of specific political choices that we, as a society, have made.

Emphasis was added by me.

I would point out only that “we, as a society,” have not made these choices and, I firmly believe, would not do so. Our government, as a result of the corrupting influence of moneyed interests in our political system, has made these choices for us.

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