The Broken Ladder: Keith Payne on How Inequality Affects Our Behavior

Shannon L. Bowen in Signature:

9780525429814Americans believe strongly in personal responsibility. It’s one of the underpinnings of our culture—and of all of Western thought—and rightly so. But Americans also believe deeply in fairness, and it’s increasingly difficult to square either of these American values with the dramatic rise in income inequality that this country has witnessed over the last fifty years.

According to nonpartisan policy and research institute the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since the 1970s, income growth for high-earning households has vastly outpaced that of low- and middle-earning households. Over the last ten years, the wealthiest one percent of households’ share of before-tax income “has climbed to levels not seen since the 1920s.” And when it comes to households’ wealth—the value of assets minus debts—the top three percent possess more than half of all wealth in the United States.

Keith Payne tackles inequality and its wide-ranging effects in his timely and illuminating new book, The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. In America and all over the world, more inequality correlates to more health and social problems. It influences how we think about social justice, how we vote, how we save for retirement or don’t, what illnesses are likely to afflict us, and how long we can expect to live. But inequality is about more than just the amount of money in a person’s bank account. “Inequality is not the same as poverty,” Payne writes. “Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

More here.