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In the United States, economic inequality has risen in recent decades. Anyone who has looked at data on this issue knows that the rise has mainly been caused by the ‘pulling away’ of the rich from everyone else in America. The top 10% of our citizens now own 70% of our wealth. In fact, the two richest men in the US (Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates) currently own more wealth than the bottom 50% of our population owns all together (that’s roughly 163 million people). Whether you look at trends in wages, wealth, or income, it’s clear that the ultra wealthy have been the breadwinners over the past 4 decades, and these trends have only been accelerating recently.
Economic inequality leads to inequalities in wealth and income result in a range of health and social problems, and often create roadblocks to the adoption of pro-environment policies and behaviour. These inequalities tear the social fabric of our nation, promote polarization, and prevent certain communities and individuals from flourishing. In addition to its impact on public health and social behavior, greater economic equality is also linked to economic progress and stability. Economic inequality is strongly correlated with shorter periods of economic expansion and less growth over long time periods. It has also been shown to cause more frequent and severe boom-and-bust cycles, which make an economy more volatile and vulnerable to crisis. While some critics may be quick to point to our national GDP as an indicator of positive economic growth, this rate itself no longer tells us how much better or worse off individuals are at different points across the income distribution.
Economic inequality is indeed good for the future incomes of the rich, because they become even richer, but it may be bad for future incomes of the poor because they only fall further behind. So when we say that the GDP is growing at 3% per year, it only means that the overall income increased by that rate, not that everyone across the board is increasing at that rate. Economic inequality also leads to lower educational achievements among the poor, who in turn become excluded from meaningful jobs and from meaningful contributions they could make to their own wellbeing or society’s improvement. Excluding a certain group of people from good education, whether it’s because of their insufficient income or gender or race, can never be good for the economy. Excluding these people from full participation in our economy is an issue of both fairness and justice. A lack of intergenerational mobility is the primary result of this exclusion; People who are relatively poor are not able to provide for their children a fraction of the benefits, from inheritance to education to social capital, that the rich provide to their offspring. This allows inequality to persist across generations, which in turn means that the opportunities for the families at the top of the pyramid are vastly different to those at the bottom. We have two detrimental factors running concurrently here: the negative effect that this exclusion has on economic growth, and on the other hand, a lack of equality of opportunity caused by this exclusion which is carried over across generations.
Last, but not least high levels of economic inequality also have adverse political effects. The rich have much more political power, and they routinely use this power to embed their position in society and promote their own interests. This means that all the negative effects of economic inequality, due to exclusion and lack of equality of opportunity, are reinforced and made permanent. That is, until the majority of society wakes up and becomes aware of what’s going on around them. Unless you’re a member of the top 10% richest in America, this inequality will only decrease, or at least stagnate, your wealth and income in the future. We must make a change, through a shifting of our tax rates and an increase in economically redistributive policies, in order to lift and revitalise communities and individuals stuck (through no fault of their own) within sunken and dwindling economies.
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