10 numbers that explain why income inequality is a hot topic

March 18, 2014

Although high-octane rhetoric on health care seems to overshadow all other political discussions in U.S. politics, income inequality and economic opportunity have crept up in speeches and policy proposals from the White House, Congress, state government, local government and academics. Here are a few reasons why.

65 percent

According to a Pew Research poll from December 2013, that's the number of Americans who think the income gap between the rich and the poor has grown in the last three years. Of those 65 percent of respondents, only 3 percent think that's a good thing. A month later, President Obama geared a large part of his State of the Union address toward that 65 percent of the population:

The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years.  A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top.  A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is. In fact, statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, but that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies -- countries like Canada or Germany or France.  They have greater mobility than we do, not less.

The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough. But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action. We are a better country than this.

Republicans have been speaking a lot about inequality in 2014, too. In early January, Newt Gingrich said on CNN, "I think every Republican should be concerned about inequality. I think when you have places where there are billionaires living in a city with 22,000 homeless children, anybody who has a sense of decency has to be concerned." Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan said in January, "Poverty is not some rare disease from which the rest of us are all immune. It is but the worst strain of a widespread disease otherwise known as economic insecurity. Most families worry about making ends meet." They all see the same problem that a majority of Americans do, but they have wildly different ideas for solving it.

32.3 million

Source: National Center for Children in Poverty

There are more than 72 million kids in America. Forty-five percent of them -- 32.3 million -- live in low-income families.

6 percent

That's how much wages grew for the median worker between 1979 and 2011. Earners in the 95th percentile saw their wages grow by 37 percent over the same time period. Earners in the top 1 percent saw their wages balloon by 113 percent.

32 

This is the number of states -- plus D.C. -- considering minimum-wage legislation as of February 24, 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

4.4 percent

Source: The Equality of Opportunity Project

A child raised in a family in the bottom fifth of income earners in Charlotte, N.C., has a 4.4 percent chance of rising to the top fifth, making Charlotte the least upwardly mobile metro area in the country. San Jose, Calif., is the most upwardly mobile city, and even then there's only a 12.9 percent chance that kids raised in the bottom fifth will reach the top. The South and Midwest are the least upwardly mobile areas of the country.

For children of affluent families, your economic future doesn't depend much on georgraphy. As David Leonhardt put it last July,

Geography mattered much less for well-off children than for middle-class and poor children, according to the results. In an economic echo of Tolstoy’s line about happy families being alike, the chances that affluent children grow up to be affluent are broadly similar across metropolitan areas.

On the other side of the economic spectrum, approximately 1.6 million children experience homelessness every year, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

This lack of mobility is one of the data points most likely making politicians pay attention to inequality; the American Dream was always prefaced on the possibility that the top was never out of reach -- what's left if we've disproved that?

58 percent

In the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, that's the number of people who would be more likely to support a candidate who "supports raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10." This policy was one of the more popular ones tested by the survey.

Source: The Washington Post

 1,714

That's the average SAT score of students who come from families with an income over $200,000. Students in families with an income lower than $20,000 have an average SAT score of 1,326. Not only are low-income kids unlikely to have high SAT scores, they are also unlikely to be able to afford the educations that create the next generation of high SAT scorers. Both parties have put forward different ideas to address equality in education, with Democrats focusing on universal pre-K and STEM training and Republicans focusing on school choice.

 

4,791,000

That's the number of people who have been unemployed for over 27 weeks as of March 7, 2014 -- and are still looking for a job. These are the people -- more likely to be a minority, disabled, less educated and already living in poverty -- that are least likely to get hired. The likelihood that an unemployed person will get called for a job interview drops 45 percent as their unemployment stretches from one month to eight months. The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill to bring back unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed -- benefits that expired at the end of last year. The bill would also retroactively provide benefits for the time period between Dec. 28 to passage of the law. In order to make the package more enticing to House Republicans -- who haven't voted on the bill yet -- they found ways to pay for the benefits without raising government spending.

 

9

That's the number of countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that have higher minimum wages than the United States does. Also looking abroad, here is a map that shows how the United States compares to other countries when it comes to income equality, as measured by the Palma ratio.

The Washington Post

As Max Fisher summed up the data last September:

The United States doesn't come out of this comparison looking great. It's ranked 44th out of 86 countries, well below every other developed society measured. It's one spot below Nigeria, which has some of the worst political corruption in the world and in 2012 saw nationwide protests over perceived income inequality. The United States' Palma ratio ranks it just beneath Nigeria but above Russia and Turkey -- all countries that have experienced heavy political unrest in recent years.

50

President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" began in 1964. This year marks the 50th anniversary of America's longest war, and both parties have reached the same conclusion (albeit for different reasons): We still have a long way to go. The White House and the House Budget Committee have both released reports on the War on Poverty this year.

Must-reads:

"Democrats' Resistance Shows Senate's Limits To Clearing Obama Nominees" -- Kristina Peterson, The Wall Street Journal

"Joe Scarborough for President? Sure, Why Not?" -- Molly Ball, The Atlantic

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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