The New Physics of Inequality: Compounding Advantage for the Rich and Accelerating Disadvantage for the Bottom 60 Percent
Researchers examine how inequality is becoming more durable and intractable.
Long ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic, I participated in a symposium at Harvard University to reflect on a recently published special issue of Daedalus, the journal of the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences –exploring “Inequality as a Multidimensional Process.” Co-convened by Successful Societies Program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. A video tape of the symposium is available HERE.
There is a growing amount of research examining the data and economic drivers of inequality and a mountain of cross-disciplinary studies on the ways that “inequality matters” to our democracy, culture, civic life, health, environment and more. What the special issue of Daedalus explores is how does inequality perpetuate itself, becoming more durable and intractable as it becomes more extreme.
The popular assumption is that rising inequality will give rise to social movements that will press for fundamental reforms to reverse inequality in democratic societies. And indeed we have documented these movements here at Inequality.org and celebrate the vigorous debate unleashed by the 2020 presidential campaign, over the impact and remedies to income and wealth inequality.
In “Inequality as a Multidimensional Process,” a diverse group of scholars sets out to explain why we are not yet witnessing Chilean or Hong Kong-style protests against inequality. The journal brings together academics from sociology, economics, political science, cultural and social psychology, and history to look at the complex interactions around inequality.
In an effort to make this scholarly research more accessible to the Inequality.org community, we invited Derek Robey to summarize one of the articles, Irene Bloemraad, Will Kymlicka, Michèle Lamont and Leanne Son Hing “Membership without Social Citizenship? Deservingness & Redistribution as Grounds for Equality” Daedalus, Fall 2019.
– Chuck Collins
Derek Robey, “Using a Boundaries Approach to Understand the Social Location of Immigrants in the United States”
In their 2019 Daedalus article, Bloemraad, Kymlicka, Lamont, and Son Hing use the empirical and conceptual toolkits of their disciplinary expertise—cultural sociology, political theory, and social psychology—to offer novel explanations for two countervailing trends in several western nations. Concurrently, these societies are experiencing an expansion of inclusive national membership (including decreasing social distance—a social science measure to assess the degree of relations including marriage, friendship, and other associations—between groups, changing citizenship regimes, and broadening cultural membership) but increased tensions around social citizenship (the valuation of group deservingness and distribution of public resources).
The authors point to several trends to substantiate the expansion of national membership. For example, many countries have moved from an ethnic conception of nationhood (where citizenship is defined by bloodline or ancestry) to a civic conception of nationhood (where citizenship is defined by residence and political loyalty). “Today, virtually all Western countries accept that citizenship should be available via naturalization to those who have settled permanently in the country,” the authors state (p. 76). The social distance between groups has also decreased, with more Americans for example, willing to have someone from a minority group as a coworker, friend, neighbor, or family member.
This growth of civic and pluralist national membership has been accompanied by fraying of social solidarity for those included in the national membership. The authors note that “the segment of the population seen as deserving of redistributive support has arguably shrunk” (p. 78). In both the United Kingdom and the United States, deservingness judgments have become much harsher with regard to the poor, immigrants, and ethnoracial minorities. Increasingly, these groups are seen as more responsible for their own disadvantaged position and less worthy of government support and assistance by the general public. For example, 70 percent of white people in the United States believed black people “just need to try harder to succeed” in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, that figure rose to 80 percent.
Some scholars conceptualize these trends as unavoidably linked—that is, more diverse membership necessarily leads to concerns over distribution. Rather than accepting the assumptions of welfare chauvinism or related theories, the authors ask what processes underly these tensions and what factors mitigate them. They offer models by exploring the work of political theorists on solidarity, social psychologists on group identity, cultural sociologists on destigmatization, and political scientists on social movements.
Each of these bodies of work draws on the notion of boundary-drawing—the process of distinguishing between groups of people based on merit, worth, deservingness, or other salient evaluative criteria. Cultural sociologists studying boundary work find the cooccurrence of these two trends unsurprising. Symbolic boundaries (evaluative distinctions made between groups of people and practices) and social boundaries (patterns of association and access to institutional, legal, or financial resources) expand or narrow based on cultural processes.
A boundaries perspective can be used to make sense of the position of immigrants in the United States in recent years. Gallup polling finds that there has been a substantial change over the years in public perception of immigration. In 2002, 52 percent of Americans said immigration was “a good thing this country today,” and 42 percent said it was a “a bad thing” (a 12-point difference). In 2019, 76 percent said it was “a good thing” and 19 percent said it was a “bad thing” (a 57-point difference). Despite the decrease in symbolic boundaries drawn against immigrants, the public does not support non-citizen immigrants’ ability to draw public benefits or assistance. Indeed, Donald Trump utilized unfounded fears and concerns that “illegal immigrant households receive far more in federal welfare benefits” to great political effect in his 2016 campaign.
As the authors establish, it is not surprising that Americans can positively evaluate immigration and immigrants on the whole while resisting any public assistance or redistributive measures designed to support immigrants. Cultural sociologists studying boundary work have found that institutions and cultural repertoires play a critical role in shaping public definitions and evaluations of groups. For example, the saying that the United States is a “nation of immigrants” was introduced and popularized by President John F. Kennedy and has expanded cultural membership and reduced social stigma against immigrants since its introduction. However, under the Trump Administration, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—the federal agency responsible for issuing green cards and granting citizenship—removed the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement in 2018. The phrase had been included since the introduction of the mission statement in 2005.
This institutional change maps onto the broader cultural narrative Trump has advanced, which paints immigrants as dangerous, untrustworthy, and unworthy of public assistance. The symbolic boundaries Trump draws against immigrants have consequences in policy and interethnic relations: the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations reported a 69% increase in hate crimes against Latinos—a population widely associated with immigration despite many being citizens or permanent residents—in Los Angeles during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In the domain of social boundaries, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revised the public charge rule as it relates to immigration in August 2019. This rule change expanded the reasons an applicant for permanent residence could be denied because they were deemed likely to become dependent on public benefits, lowering the threshold of benefit use from 50% of one’s income to only 15% of one’s income while also expanding the types of public benefits that could be considered when judging admissibility. The Trump administration is using the widespread view in parts of American public imagination that immigrants are “freeloaders” on public benefits to decrease the usage of support programs by immigrant families and limit access to legal permanent resident status.
Issues of national membership and social citizenship will continue to be important in the public discourse. The perspectives offered by Bloemraad, Kymlicka, Lamont, and Son Hing—the boundaries perspective outlined in this article and several others discussed in the full Daedalus article—provide an analytical toolkit for those interested in expanding both national membership and social citizenship.
 A Nation of Immigrants by John F. Kennedy