Income Inequality in the United States
The rich get richer, goes the traditional saying, and the poor get poorer. This saying embodies two implicit economic assumptions. One is that the social community as a whole -- the macroeconomic world -- is characterized by income inequality, an inequality so sharp that society is divided into two groups, the rich and the poor. The other is that in the usual course of events, this income inequality tends to widen, with the gulf between rich and poor becoming ever more sharply stratified.
The saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is of uncertain age and origin. It certainly goes far back in time, and indeed it is surely rooted, as we will see, in the experience of traditional agrarian village life in the pre-industrial age. Yet it is a saying that has popular relevance in the entirely different economic world of the contemporary United States.
A widespread populist sense exists today that income inequality in the United States is widening, and sharply. Certainly the very rich are more prominent than a generation ago; in the 1960s and 1970s the richest Americans were nearly invisible to the public eye, but in the 1990s, who hasn't heard of Bill Gates? At a slightly lower level, the multimillion dollar contracts of sports and film stars are as much discussed as their exploits on court or screen. In general, a "star system" has contributed markedly to a concentration of incomes at the top in sports, entertainment, and related areas (Frank and Cook, 1995, 61ff). However, even far below the "star" level, a current article in The Wall Street Journal discusses young couples in their 20s who -- in significant numbers -- are buying million-dollar houses (Dunham, 1997).
On the other side of the traditional equation, the focus of attention and concern in most discussions of rising inequality is not "the poor" -- a term which in modern American public usage is ...