Good Reads

The Closer the Focus, the Deeper the Divide

The national statistics on the economic and social gaps that divide us, suggests this new research two years in the making, actually understate how unequal American life has become at the more local level, where people live it.

By Sam Pizzigati

Measure of AmericaA review of Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps, The Measure of America 2010–2011: Mapping Risks and Resilience. A joint publication of the Social Science Research Council and New York University Press, November 2010, 320 pp.

“The United States today is a country of great and increasing socioeconomic inequality, with unimagined wealth living side by side with entrenched poverty.”

So writes Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs in his preface to this just-published second — and colossally comprehensive — report from the American Human Development Project.

We don’t really need, in a sense, this reminder from Sachs. We already know that the United States has become staggeringly unequal, and gross national statistics on that inequality abound all around us.

This new volume shares some of these stats. We learn, for instance, that the average wealth of America’s top 1 percent soared 103 percent after inflation — to $18.5 million per household — from 1983 to 2007. The bottom 40 percent, over those same years, saw their wealth sink 63 percent, to $2,200 per household.

But this new Measure of America 2010–2011 supplies something else as well. Something rather unique: a dramatic statistical portrait of how national inequalities play out at the local level, in daily life as Americans — of low-, middle-, and high-income — live it.

This drilling down, from national and state to metro area and congressional district, helps reveal just how incredibly unequal American lives have become, by nearly every useful benchmark, from length of life to time in school.

Nationally, the average American now lives 78.6 years. But that figures varies enormously by state. Hawaiians average 81.5 years, Mississippians only 74.8, a divide as wide as the life-expectancy gap between Switzerland and Panama.

The life-expectancy gap at the U.S. congressional district level varies even more. In Virginia’s Congressional District 8, just outside Washington, residents average 83.7 years. In southern West Virginia’s CD 3, lives average only 72.9.

Still larger gaps show up when Measure of America turns to other benchmarks. In CD 14, on Manhattan’s East Side, 30.2 percent of residents sport a graduate degree. In California’s CD 20, the rural Central Valley, 1.8 percent.

Or how about per-pupil spending. Educators in New Jersey’s Asbury Park School District have $30,800 more per student than educators in California’s Waterford Unified School District, almost an extra $1 million per classroom.

Want more numbers? You’ll find them here, their stunningly unequal ugliness presented in often beautifully striking charts and graphs.

The first American Human Development Report appeared two years ago. This new volume, like the first, builds off the conceptual work that researchers behind the United Nations Human Development Index have pioneered.

signupIn a nutshell, instead of measuring how well the economy is doing, both the UN and American human development projects attempt to show how people are doing — in their efforts to reach their full human potential.

People do better at that reaching, the latest UN Human Development Report makes clear, when they live amid more equal surroundings. And the new UN report, to emphasize equality’s importance, adds a special section that analyzes how the “skewed distribution” of income and wealth undermines “the freedom to be healthy, to be educated, and to enjoy a decent standard of living.”

The new American Human Development Report doesn’t factor “skewed distribution” into its analysis. But the report still ends up in a similar place.

“Tackling social and economic disparities and improving the conditions in which people are born and raised,” the report concludes, “hold the greatest promise for longer, healthier lives.”

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Too Much appears weekly. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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