Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Pinning an Early Death on Income Inequality

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Pinning an Early Death on Income Inequality

Article excerpt

The trend is painfully evident in the statistics. Over the last quarter century, the incomes of millions of Americans have grown farther apart, so much so that a phrase, income inequality, has been coined to describe what has happened. Income inequality has persisted, undented so far, through the economic expansion of the 1990s. Now social scientists are beginning to assess the damage that it inflicts on Americans -- the rich as well as the much less rich - - in their daily lives.

The initial findings are sometimes startling, if still inconclusive. Life expectancy, for example, appears to be adversely linked to income inequality. Americans live longer than they used to -- someone born today can expect to reach 76 -- but still not as long as people in Japan, Germany and Switzerland, where incomes are similarly high but are more equally distributed.

Other factors besides income play a role in life expectancy: differing rates of highway deaths, for instance, and the prevalence of AIDS. But in any attempt to understand American social problems, enduring income inequality must now be considered as well, said Christopher Jencks, a professor of sociology at the Kennedy School of government at Harvard University. "If you had asked me a year ago if there was evidence that income inequality had some social consequence, I would have said, `Gee, I don't know,'" said Jencks, who recently began a study of the subject with two other academics. "But the data seem to say that if you are of average income, living among people of average income, you are less likely to have a heart attack than if you live more stressfully in a community where there is you in the middle, and a bunch of rich people and a bunch of poor people. That seems hard to believe, but it is the direction in which the evidence seems to point." For years, economists have been expecting egalitarian America to revert to the pattern of the early postwar years, when spreads in income were much smaller between people like office workers, teachers, mechanics, bus drivers and factory workers on the one hand, and doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, engineers and executives on the other. The assumption was that families would soon migrate back to middle income, earning between $30,000 and $80,000 a year in today's dollars -- a category that represented 63 percent of all families in 1973 but only 50 percent today. If income inequality did persist, then many economists hoped for relief from a re-emergence of a second egalitarian characteristic of American life that has all but disappeared. …

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