Rising inequality is one of our most pressing social concerns. And it is not simply that some are advantaged while others are not, but that structures of inequality are self-reinforcing and cumulative; they become durable. The societal arrangements that in the past have produced more equal economic outcomes and social opportunities – such as expanded mass education, access to social citizenship and its benefits, and wealth redistribution – have often been attenuated and supplanted by processes that are instead inequality-inducing. Two claims develop out of these conversations: First, the need to explore linkages, both temporal and across levels of analysis, that may illuminate the sources of durable inequality. And second, building on the first, the need to focus on relatively underexplored aspects of contemporary social inequality: more specifically, the relationship between distribution and recognition as intertwined dynamics producing and reproducing inequality.
We describe the rise of “opportunity markets” that allow well-off parents to buy opportunity for their children. Although parents cannot directly buy a middle-class outcome for their children, they can buy opportunity indirectly through advantaged access to the schools, neighborhoods, and information that create merit and raise the probability of a middle-class outcome. The rise of opportunity markets happened so gradually that the country has seemingly forgotten that opportunity was not always sold on the market. If the United States were to recommit to equalizing opportunities, this could be pursued by dismantling opportunity markets, by providing low-income parents with the means to participate in them, or by allocating educational opportunities via separate competitions among parents of similar means. The latter approach, which we focus upon here, would not require mobilizing support for a massive redistributive project.
The striking economic agglomerations emerging in affluent democracies are generating, reproducing, and expanding inequalities. A major mechanism for this is housing, which is both a repository for wealth and, under these conditions, a magnifier of wealth. Access to urban areas – the site of educational, labor, and marriage market advantages – is contingent upon access to housing. We use comparative analysis of cases in Europe (London and Paris) and the United States (New York and San Francisco) to consider the capacities of different societies to limit or ameliorate these new sources of diverging opportunity. These seemingly local issues remain shaped by distinct national political contexts, which vary dramatically in their capacity to support local affordable housing and reduce the collective action problems confronting major metropolitan areas.
Western societies have experienced a broadening of inclusive membership, whether we consider legal, interpersonal, or cultural membership. Concurrently, we have witnessed increased tensions around social citizenship, notably harsher judgments or boundaries over who “deserves” public assistance. Some have argued these phenomena are linked, with expanded, more diverse membership corroding solidarity and redistribution. We maintain that such a conclusion is premature and, especially, unsatisfactory: it fails to detail the processes – at multiple levels of analysis – behind tensions over membership and social citizenship. This essay draws on normative political theory, social psychology, cultural sociology, and political studies to build a layered explanatory framework that highlights the importance of individual feelings of group identity and threat for people’s beliefs and actions; the significance of broader cultural repertoires and notions of national solidarity as a source and product of framing contests; and the diverse ways elites, power, and institutions affect notions of membership and deservingness.
Why is there not more public outcry in the face of rising income inequality? Although public choice models predict that rising inequality will spur public demand for redistribution, evidence often fails to support this view. We explain this lack of outcry by considering social-psychological processes contextualized within the spatial, institutional, and political context that combine to dampen dissent. We contend that rising inequality can activate the very psychological processes that stifle outcry, causing people to be blind to the true extent of inequality, to legitimize rising disparities, and to reject redistribution as an effective solution. As a result, these psychological processes reproduce and exacerbate inequality and legitimize the institutions that produce it. Finally, we explore ways to disrupt the processes perpetuating this cycle.
Scholars have argued that disadvantaged groups face an impossible choice in their efforts to win policies capable of diminishing inequality: whether to emphasize their sameness to or difference from the advantaged group. We analyze three cases from the 1980s and 1990s in which reformers sought to avoid that dilemma and assert groups’ sameness and difference in novel ways: in U.S. policy on biomedical research, in the European Union’s initiatives on gender equality, and in Canadian law on Indigenous rights. In each case, however, the reforms adopted ultimately reproduced the sameness/difference dilemma rather than transcended it. To explain why, we show how profound disagreements about both the histories of the groups included in the policy and the place of the policy in a longer historical trajectory of reform either went unrecognized or were actively obscured. Targeted groups came to be attributed a biological or timeless essence, not because this was inevitable, we argue, but because of these failures to historicize inequality.
The essays in this issue of Dædalus raise fascinating and urgent questions about inequality, time, and interdisciplinary research. They lead me to ask further questions about the public’s commitment to reducing inequality, the importance of political power in explaining and reducing social and economic inequities, and the possible incommensurability of activists’ and policy-makers’ vantage points or job descriptions.
The trenchant essays in this volume pose two critical questions with respect to inequality: First, what explains the eruption of nationalist, xenophobic, and far-right politics and the ability of extremists to gain a toehold in the political arena that is greater than at any time since World War II? Second, how did the social distance between the haves and have-nots harden into geographic separation that makes it increasingly difficult for those attempting to secure jobs, housing, and mobility-ensuring schools to break through? The answers are insightful and unsettling, particularly when the conversation turns to an action agenda. Every move in the direction of alternatives is fraught because the histories that brought each group of victims to occupy their uncomfortable niche in the stratification order excludes some who should be included or ignores a difference that matters in favor of principles of equal treatment.
Process matters not just for diagnosing the causes of inequality, but also for how policy is shaped. The dominant paradigms for policy-making — neoliberalism, neo-Keynesianism, and neopaternalism — largely address inequality via “outcome-policies” that manipulate the levers of government and, more recently, draw on randomized trials and “nudges” to change behavior, in a manner that is not only easy to measure, but also easy to reverse. This commentary draws on the essays in this special issue of Dædalus to make the case for “reflectivism,” which shifts structural inequalities in agency, power, social structure, empathy, and aspiration in an incremental manner that is more uncertain and difficult to measure, but that can result in more lasting change.