Reviews > Culture

Egalitarianism v. charity

Culture | The two concepts are unrelated and society can't have both

Issue: "Bosnian relief," March 30, 1996

Here's a statement from Secretary of Labor Robert Reich: "Except for those who revere ideological preconceptions over the evidence of their own eyes, the growth in inequality and the precariousness of the middle class are stunningly obvious features of the contemporary American landscape."

Secretary Reich asserts that those who disagree with him revere ideological preconceptions over the evidence of their own eyes. What should we say, however, about the evidence of our own eyes? Let me report what I see.

I have a habit of watching shoes in poor areas of cities. I grew up in a poor family. We inherited tennis shoes from older siblings or cousins; we were quite happy if they did not already have holes. I observe today that the shoes in poor areas of American cities are far better than shoes we ever wore. I note in poor areas that about 95 percent of homes have color TVs. When I visit colleges, I am reminded of a current definition: "A university is a massive parking lot here and there interrupted by building projects." Those acres of parking lots filled with shiny late-model cars are incredible to one who went to college in the 1950s; at that time, only a handful of my classmates had automobiles of their own, and if so, usually clunkers.

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Again, I notice when I go back to Pennsylvania, especially in the rural areas (which are supposed to be so poor), the shininess of the pickup trucks and the extensive number of gadgets they carry. If these belong to males whose wages are stagnating, something extraordinary is going on, because they drive vehicles no one poor 30 years ago dreamed of owning. At Penn State football games, the tailgate parties are lavish beyond belief, and so are the provisions hunters take with them into the Pennsylvania hills. The evidence of my senses belies what I read in stories about wage stagnation and inequality. More money is being spent somehow.

In brief, the appeal to evidence of one's own eyes depends on one's own eyes. If real wages are stagnating, it also helps to recognize that they are among the highest of all human history. In international comparisons, it is true that at the lowest levels the United States does badly, but at the highest levels we do better than anybody else. If you look at the median levels, moreover, we seem to be ahead of practically everybody else except the Swiss.

There has been a tremendous change in our bottom quintile that most analysts are not noticing. This quintile is not composed of the same sorts of people as 20 or 30 years ago. In the bottom quintile these days, only one of every five persons is working full-time year-round. That is not the way it was. There used to be a lot of working people, particularly male heads of families, in the bottom quintile. In the bottom quintile today, two-thirds of the heads of households are single women. About one-half of these are younger women with children, and about one-half are widows (mostly over 65). Today the bottom quintile is different in its makeup from the other four quintiles. The bottom fifth does not contain many intact married families. It does not contain many full-time workers. A majority of its householders are not working at all, even part-time.

If you remember that in the upper four quintiles more than half the women have gone to work in the past 20 years, you see the tremendous effect that the rapid entry of women into the work force has had on income inequality. If a postal worker earns $20,000 per year and his spouse also goes to work at $20,000, their combined income is $40,000. If a professor goes to work at $50,000 and his or her spouse goes to work at about the same, their family income is $100,000. The disparity between the incomes of these two families has jumped quite significantly. When only the males worked, the gap was $30,000; when both spouses in each family work, the gap between families has grown to $60,000. Any gap is much more significant when you double it.

In other countries, has the same thing happened to their bottom quintile? Do other countries experience the same effect when both husband and wife work? Is that effect on inequality being measured? Does their bottom quintile mostly consist of young female heads of households and widows? ...

Ideas of compassion affect our thinking on equality. The Jewish and Christian concept emphasizes caring for the widow and the orphan, for the poor and the vulnerable. This conviction has had a tremendous long-term effect on our political history, such that today nearly all persons-even secular, unbelieving people-hold that the good society is measured by how well it cares for the poor and vulnerable. In ancient Greece and Rome, in Egypt, and elsewhere, such an idea was seen to be counter to nature, perhaps a sign of sentimentality and weakness of mind. Plato held that most human beings have slavish instincts and are slaves by nature.

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