A little more on inequality

13/05/2012 § 2 Comments

Paul Krugman’s blog today has a bit on a new paper (pdf) on teen births in the US. He specifically relates it to the kind of research on inequality reported in The Spirit Level, which I disputed here. Krugman presents a key graph from the paper:

The problem is that this graph doesn’t support the thesis of The Spirit Level. Recall that Wilkinson and Pickett say that unequal more equal societies are better for everyone; that’s why we should all pull together to reduce inequality. This graph says nothing of the sort. Mothers with any college have the same rate of unmarried, teenage births, regardless of the underlying equality in their US state. For mothers with a high school diploma, the difference is small and probably not significant. It is only high-school dropout mothers — those with the least opportunities and the futures with the lowest expected incomes — who are really disadvantaged by inequality.

The message is that inequality is bad for those holding the short end of the stick. That’s a problem for Wilkinson and Pickett. If inequality hurts everybody, then it should be easy to get everyone involved in reducing it. It is in their own, selfish interest. If inequality is bad only for the worst-off, then it takes a leap of empathy for others to worry about them. That’s a harder ask.



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