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Race and Gender Cannot Explain Increasing Inequality September 14, 2010

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Uncategorized.
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As I have noted often on this blog, inequality—the Great Divergence—has increased rather dramatically in the U.S.

The question is why, a question Timothy Noah is attempting answer in his series of articles at Slate.

Most discussion about inequality in the United States focuses on race and gender. That makes sense, because our society has a conspicuous history of treating blacks differently from whites and women differently from men. Black/white and male/female inequality persist to this day. The median annual income for women working full time is 23 percent lower than for their male counterparts. The median annual income for black families is 38 percent lower than for their white counterparts. The extent to which these imbalances involve lingering racism and sexism or more complex matters of sociology and biology is a topic of much anguished and heated debate.

But we need not delve into that debate, because the Great Divergence can’t be blamed on either race or gender. To contribute to the growth in income inequality over the past three decades, the income gaps between women and men, and between blacks and whites, would have to have grown. They didn’t.

The black/white gap in median family income has stagnated; it’s a mere three percentage points smaller today than it was in 1979. This lack of progress is dismaying. So is the apparent trend that, during the current economic downturn, the black/white income gap widened somewhat. But the black/white income gap can’t be a contributing factor to the Great Divergence if it hasn’t grown over the past three decades. And even if it had grown, there would be a limit to how much impact it could have on the national income-inequality trend, because African-Americans constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Women constitute half the U.S. population, but they can’t be causing the Great Divergence because the male-female wage gap has shrunk by nearly half. Thirty years ago the median annual income for women working full-time was not 23 percent less than men’s, but 40 percent less. Most of these gains occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s; during the past five years they halted. But there’s every reason to believe the male-female income gap will continue to narrow in the future, if only because in the U.S. women are now better educated than men. Ever since the late 1990s female students have outnumbered male students at colleges and universities. The female-male ratio is currently 57 to 43, and the U.S. Department of Education expects that disparity to increase over the next decade.

Far from contributing to the Great Divergence, women have, to a remarkable degree, absented themselves from it.  […] during the past three decades, women have outperformed men at all education levels in the workforce. Both men and women have (in the aggregate) been moving out of moderately skilled jobs—secretary, retail sales representative, steelworker, etc.—women more rapidly than men. But women have been much more likely than men to shift upward into higher skilled jobs—from information technology engineer and personnel manager on up through various high-paying professions that require graduate degrees (doctor, lawyer, etc.).

These findings suggest that women’s relative gains in the workplace are not solely a You’ve-Come-a-Long-Way-Baby triumph of the feminist movement and individual pluck. They also reflect downward mobility among men.

And as Noah reports, conservative arguments that inequality is a product of single parents or the breakdown in the family also don’t wash.

But it would be difficult to attribute much of the Great Divergence to single parenthood, because it increased mostly before 1980, when the Great Divergence was just getting under way. By the early 1990s, the growth trend halted altogether, and though it resumed in the aughts the rate of growth was significantly slower.

Also, single parenthood isn’t as damaging economically as it was at the start of the Great Divergence. “That’s mostly because the percentage of women who are actually working who are single parents went up,” Jencks told me. In a January 2008 paper, three Harvard sociologists concluded that the two-thirds rise in income inequality among families with children from 1975 to 2005 could not be attributed to divorce and out-of-wedlock births. “Single parenthood increased inequality,” they conceded, “but the income gap was closed by mothers who entered the labor force.” One trend canceled the effects of another (at least in the aggregate).

So there is little evidence supporting either liberal or conservative arguments regarding increases in inequality.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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