It’s impossible to defend the grotesque—and growing—levels of inequality that characterize U.S. capitalism.
But, as they have throughout American history, some people still try. Their most common argument is that there’s nothing wrong with unequal outcomes as long as there is equal opportunity.*
Hmmm, not so much.
A recent study by a team of researchers led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty (pdf)—summarized and analyzed by Ben Casselman and Andrew Flowers—confirms that “where you come from. . .plays a major role in determining where you will end up later in life.”
Your starting point determines, for example (as in the figure above), how likely you are to have a job at age 30. Children from poor families are much less likely to work in adulthood than children from middle-class and upper-class families. Only about 60 percent of children from the poorest families are working at age 30, compared with more than 80 percent of children from higher-income families.
It also determines your income at the age of 30: there’s a steady increase in income until the top few percentiles of parental income, when it spikes.**
And, finally, it determines where you end up in the distribution of income (as the chart above measures not dollar incomes, but household income by percentile). Children from the richest 1 percent of families end up being, on average, in about the top third of households at age 30, while children from the poorest 1 percent of families end up in the bottom third at age 30.
It’s clear the United States suffers from an obscenely unequal distribution of income and wealth. It’s also characterized by a profoundly unequal distribution of opportunities.
*That line of argument suffers from three main problems: First, it presumes inequality only affects individuals, not society as a whole. In other words, it overlooks the effects of the concentration of income and wealth in the hands of a small group of individuals in terms of their ability to decide what happens not only in their own lives, but in the rest of society. Second, even if perfect mobility existed, making it to the top would still mean there’s a an even larger group at the bottom; that is, the existence of equal opportunity doesn’t undo or overturn the existing class structure. Third, it overlooks the extent to which unequal outcomes actually contribute—via household and neighborhood effects, government policy, education, and so on—to making equal opportunity an even more distant fantasy.
**As Casselman and Flowers explain, “This measures only wage and salary earnings, so it doesn’t factor in any other advantages these young adults might have, such as trust funds, lower student debt, or parental help with housing or other expenses.”