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What Makes the United States So Unequal?

Research & Commentary
May 28, 2014

by Robert Ross

In the United States, the government is doing less to reduce inequality than any other high-income society.

By Robert J.S. Ross

If governments did nothing, Western Europe and the United States would have similar levels of inequality. But governments don’t sit on the sidelines. They collect taxes. They provide social programs. They take steps that can lessen the amount of market inequality. The difference: Governments in European and other high-income societies do much more to reduce inequality than the United States.

Comparisons of income inequality among the high income countries usually show the United States as the most unequal.

Comparisons among the high-income countries usually show the United States as the most unequal.

Comparisons of income inequality among the high income countries usually show the United States as the most unequal, as measured by a standard index called the Gini coefficient.  A Gini value of 100 means that all the income is held by one household.  A value of 0, on the other hand, means that all income is equally shared.

For the United States, the Gini coefficient runs about 38, according to the OECD, the economic policy tank for the rich countries, or about 48, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The American Gini rating has risen sharply in the last generation, after falling gradually in the middle of the twentieth century.

By comparison, the Nordic countries– Sweden, Denmark, Norway – have among the lowest Gini coefficients, in the 25-27 range, while Germany has a Gini of 29 and France, 28.

Comparisons that show the United States as the most unequal of high-income societies typically take into account the income households have from market-based activity (work and investments) and government transfer programs (Social Security and unemployment compensation, for instance)  and subtract away taxes. Researchers call the end result from these calculations “post tax and transfer” or “disposable” income.

Political decisions determine taxes and transfers. Public policies, everything from minimum wage to labor laws, also influence market-based income. So we should expect inequality levels to differ among developed nations. Even so, the actual differences among developed nations can be surprising. [pullquote]Political decisions determine taxes and transfers.[/pullquote]

On the yardstick of market-based income, the level of inequality in the United States does not come off as particularly extreme. The United States ranks eighth most unequal among the 26 countries that reported 2010 data to the OECD. The United States sports about 7 percent more market-based inequality than the average of all OECD nations.

The extreme inequality status of the United States only kicks in when we go beyond market-based income and look at tax and transfer policies.

In the United States, taxes and transfers are doing much less to reduce inequality than these policies are doing in other developed nations. On average, rich countries’ tax and transfer policies reduce inequality by about 36 percent. The figure in the United States: only about 24 percent.

In Sweden, market-based inequality shows a Gini of about 44, but the disposable income Gini sits at a much more equal 27, a reduction of 39 percent in inequality. In the United States, the market Gini comes in about 50. The disposable income Gini: just 38 in the OECD data, a reduction of only 24 percent.

Over the last generation, major changes in U.S. tax and transfer policies – mainly cuts in the tax rates on high incomes – have actually served to increase inequality.

Inequality, to be sure, is increasing in almost all high-income countries, the consequence of the triumph of global capitalism and its neoliberal policy package: market dominance, privatization, and deregulation. But even in this company, the United States stands out for the depth of its commitment to policies – particularly tax policies – that favor the rich. [pullquote] The United States stands out for its policies that favor the rich. [/pullquote]

Many Americans are, not surprisingly, concerned about excessive taxes. Ours, after all, has been a nation forged in a struggle against a grasping, remote, tax-hungry overlord. Yet when we compare ourselves to other countries about as rich and democratic as we are, it appears we are not highly taxed. Our total taxation level stands at about 24 percent of GDP (the total value of national production and income), a level significantly lower than the 34 percent average of the other high-ncome countries.

Why should we care about how little our tax system reduces inequality? Among the world’s high-income countries,  the British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have powerfully pointed out in The Spirit Level, the more unequal societies – and regions within countries – have more violence, infant mortality, lower life expectancies, and more mental illness. Societies that are more equal, on the other hand, have more trust among people. Our levels of inequality produce fractured community and social resentment, and they drive sour and even violent politics.

Inequality has become like the weather: Everybody talks about it but no one does anything. Unlike the weather, we can fix this mess and heal these wounds.  To do so, we may need a reminder from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

Clark University sociologist Robert Ross is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. He is the author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.

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