Here’s a great cocktail party question. What do Cote d’Ivoire, Uruguay and the United States have in common? Answer: all three nations have about the same level of income inequality among its citizens. For those who didn’t know it, America now ranks lowest of all developed nations in terms of income distribution.
After my last column on this subject, I realized that when it comes to measuring the wealth gap, rarely do we Americans compare ourselves to other nations. Instead, we check out what our neighbors are making and if we are in the same income ballpark then we leave it at that. And most of the time we ignore the stories of multi-million dollar salaries that others make as simply a one-off event, an exception, not the rule. But times are changing.
Beginning with the Occupy Wall Street movement, income inequality has come to the forefront in our consciousness and has now become a campaign issue. So I decided to find out just where this nation’s income inequality stands in comparison to the rest of the world.
As a first step, the easiest measure of determining whether a country is rich or poor is to simply add up its cumulative wealth or gross domestic product (called GDP). If you divided the number of people in a country by its wealth you get per capita GDP. The problem is that measurement falls short in determining whether a society is truly wealthy. You could have, for example, the highest per capita GDP in the world on paper, but if all that wealth were controlled by just one or two people, the society overall would be dirt poor.
In order to discover whether a society is truly wealthy, I needed to account for the distribution of wealth. I quickly discovered that most economists and sociologists use the “Gini Index,” which measures how equitable a nation is in its distribution of wealth. The Gini Index or scale begins at “0” (everyone gets the same income) to “1” (one person has all the income).
I discovered that the U.S. ranks at 0.450 on the Gini Index, sandwiched between the two Third World nations I first mentioned at the beginning of the column. America ranks the lowest of all developed nations in the index. What is equally shameful is that not one state ranked in the normal range of income distribution anywhere within the developed world.
The ranking of your state might shock you. For example, California, at 0.466, was comparable to income distribution in Rwanda. Connecticut was slightly worse at 0.480, the same as Venezuela. Massachusetts was about equal to Mexico at 0.461. New York came in on par with Costa Rica at 0.495. New Hampshire at 0.417 equated to Cambodia while Maine at 0.428 had the same inequality that citizens of Singapore endure.
The U.S. is a great deal wealthier than all of these nations. It boasts one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, but in terms of distributing that wealth, this nation is sucking wind. No matter how wealthy we become, if an increasing share of that wealth continues to flow to the same one percent than this country is no better off than it was before. It is, in fact, worse off.
Unfortunately, researchers expect the trend of income inequality in this country to increase and maybe accelerate. As more and more of us become disenfranchised, our stake in the country and in its political system will decline. Bottom line: income inequality undermines democracy. What can be done about it? Stay tuned for my next column.