The costs of inequality: When a fair shake isn’t

It’s a seemingly nondescript chart, buried in a Harvard Business School (HBS) professor’s academic paper.

A rectangle, divided into parts, depicts U.S. wealth for each fifth of the population. But it appears to show only three divisions. The bottom two, representing the accumulated wealth of 124 million people, are so small that they almost don’t even show up.

Other charts in other journals illustrate different aspects of American inequality. They might depict income, housing quality, rates of imprisonment, or levels of political influence, but they all look very much the same.

Perhaps most damning are those that reflect opportunity — whether involving education, health, race, or gender — because the inequity represented there belies our national identity. America, we believe, is a land where everyone gets a fair start and then rises or falls according to his or her own talent and industry. But if you’re poor, if you’re uneducated, if you’re black, if you’re Hispanic, if you’re a woman, there often is no fair start.

Inequality, of course, has become a national buzzword and a political cause célèbrein this election year. It’s been discussed everywhere in the recent past, from the State of the Union Address to Thomas Piketty’s best-seller to the lips of presidential candidates to Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si.”

Though the American public and politicians have just rediscovered the problem of inequality, the issue has long been an area of academic inquiry at Harvard, where research on its root causes crosses numerous disciplines.

– The Harvard Gazette

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