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Wednesday, May 21, 2014


My strenuous engagement with Thomas Piketty is a thing of the past, my extended debate with Professors Kliman and Freeman has been concluded, I have been to Seattle and back -- it is time to turn to other topics on this blog.  I shall start with some observations on a subject that is intimately related to both Piketty and to Kliman and Freeman -- economic inequality.  My focus, however, shall not be on the accumulations of wealth in the stratospheric reaches of American society, nor on debates about the proper way to interpret Karl Marx's anatomy of capitalism.  Rather, I shall write for a bit about the men, women, and children near the bottom of the income distribution in America.  Those who have followed this blog faithfully for years [if indeed this is not the null set] will recognize themes that I have struck here several times.  As Callicles complains in the Gorgias, "Socrates, you always keep saying the same thing over and over again!" to which Socrates replies, in one of the most poignant lines in any of the Dialogues, "Not only that, Callicles, but on the same subjects, too."

Some facts first.  According to the U. S. Census Bureau in conjunction with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 [the latest figures I could find -- nothing very much has changed], there were about 121 million plus households in America.  Two thirds were family households, one third non-family households.  The latter category includes POSSLQ's.  A POSSLQ, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a household consisting of "Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters" who are not related by birth or marriage.  Nowadays, we would want to expand that category to include POOSSSLQ's, which is to say "Persons of Opposite Or the Same Sex Sharing Living Quarters" who are not related by birth or marriage.  This has nothing at all to do with what I shall be writing about today, but I very rarely get to use the lovely acronym POSSLQ, and I take every chance that comes along.

The Census Bureau divides these one hundred twenty-one million households into quintiles [fifths], and then gives the lower limit of annual household income for each quintile.  The lower limit of the bottom quintile in 2011 was of course zero [there are some households with no income at all.]  The lower limit of the second quintile was $20,260.  That means that one-fifth of all the households in the United States, in 2011, had annual income below $20,260.  How many people are we talking about?  Well, in 2011, the population of the United States was about 310 million, but single-person households and households with only two members are over-represented in the lowest quintile [for various obvious reasons], so that quintile comprises something less than a fifth of the population.  One-fifth of 310 million is 62 million.  Let us guess that the lowest quintile in 2011 had fifty million people in it.  Fifty million people living in households with less -- in many cases much less -- than $20,000 a year.  The next quintile -- maybe another fifty-five million people -- comprises households living on less than $38,500 a year.  That is well over one hundred million people who by any calculation are either desperately poor or are living in very, very straitened circumstances. 

What about those at the top?  It would seem reasonable to consider the top fifth of the households the Upper Middle Class, comfortably fixed, affluent.  The top fifth is the people who have made it, as we say -- not rich, perhaps, but really well off.  Who fits into that category in modern America?  Well, all politics are local, as Tip O'Neill used to say, so I Googled a bit and came up with some salary ranges here in Chapel Hill, NC, where I live.  Consider a married couple just turning fifty.  The wife teaches third grade in the Rashkis Elementary School located at the north end of Meadowmont, the community in which I live.  Her salary is set by the state, not the city.  Her husband is a Police Patrol Officer.  He never made Sergeant, but he has soldiered on, and his salary has crept up with the years.

This couple form a household that fell in the top quintile of income in 2011.  What?  A third grade teacher and a policeman not your idea of the upper middle class?  Well, those are the facts, regardless of what you have seen on television.  By the way, the family of a senior professor at an elite college or university were in the top 5% even if he or she was the only wage earner in the family.  A married couple both of whom have tenure at the local state university were also probably in the top 5%.  By any reasonable use of the term, they are rich, but those aren't the people we think of when we talk about "the rich," are they?

Note, by the way, that one must have at least a Bachelor's Degree to get a job as a third grade teacher.  But not to be a police officer in Chapel Hill.  There are apparently about seventy-five Police Departments around the country for which a Bachelor's degree is a prerequisite, but Chapel Hill is not one of them.  [But of course you do need a BA to be an FBI agent.]  As I have often pointed out on this blog, only about one-third of adults 25 years and older in the United States have Bachelor's Degrees, which means that two-thirds of adult Americans cannot even aspire to be elementary school teachers.  Nor do they have much chance of ever becoming Walmart store managers, but that is a job that will put you in the top income fifth even if your spouse does not work, so perhaps we should not be surprised.

What is the point of these facts and figures, interesting as they may be?  Very simply, the point is that Americans are not nearly so well off as one might imagine just from watching television or listening to politicians.  Almost everyone who has a speaking role on television is in at least the top quintile of income and probably in the top 5% or 2% or 1%  -- reporters, commentators, anchormen and women, meteorologists, terrorism experts, the lawyers, doctors, police sergeants, FBI agents, models, and spies who populate the prime time shows, the professors who are interviewed, and of course the politicians themselves, the Senators, Governors, Members of the House of Representatives.  Even the working poor who turn up as characters on some TV shows are represented as living in apartments or houses and eating dinners that the real people in the lowest fifth could never afford.  When was the last time you saw a character in a prime time show trying to decide whether to fill a desperately needed medical prescription or eat dinner. it not being an option to do both?

This is enough to get us started.  Tomorrow, we can begin to talk about the causes of the severe income inequality in America [and elsewhere, of course], and what could be done to change it.



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