Two views of income inequality

Joseph Stiglitz

By coincidence, two expert authors spoke about American economic inequality on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 11. Noted economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of among other recent books The Price of Inequality and The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What  We Can Do About Them, addressed an audience at the FDR presidential library in Hyde Park at 4:30 p.m. Half an hour later, Alissa Quart, a journalist, sometime academic and author of“Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, was interviewed by The New York Times free-lance journalist Julie Laski as part of the Woodstock Library Forum series.

Since I couldn’t attend both these events, I hoped to do the next best thing. I got a copy of The Great Divide and went to the Woodstock forum.

Those who write critically about American inequality occupy a big tent, with ample room both for both economists like Joe Stiglitz and journalists like Alissa Quart. Columbia University economics professor Stiglitz is an advisor to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, of which Quart is executive director.


Quart, a capable storyteller, read a couple of excerpts from her book about the economic dilemmas of middle-class Americans struggling largely unsuccessfully to maintain the standard of living to which their parents were accustomed. Seeing more than one side to recent changes in the economy, Quart proved no ideologue. She argued that many women in the labor force seemed to be transforming “the motherhood penalty” of leaving, and returning into greater productivity. Quart said they often became more productive “because they thought about people differently.”

She explained the complex coping strategies that she observed single parents, Uber drivers and people selling umbrellas during rainstorms coming up within the just-in-time gig economy. Quart is all for constant cultural reevaluation.

Quart made reference to a three-class sociological classification developed in the last decade or so. The top class, which is gaining an increasing share of resources and greater ownership of the means of production, is the well-known 1 percent. Below them is the “salariat,” a traditional middle class with stable jobs, good pay and adequate retirement benefits. At the bottom is the rapidly growing “precariat,” people with precarious, poorly paid and unstable employment, no long-term security, and little future other than the hope to continue barely to make ends meet.   

Laski asked Quart about gentrification. The displacement of populations by gentrification was clearly a major problem, Quart replied. But the gentrifiers, bringing new perspectives and new ideas to settled environments, often became positive contributors. 

Alissa Quart

In Quart’s view, “Work has taken over home, where it should be the opposite.” Quart counsels activism rather than passivity. Grumbling doesn’t help. “We need to start out blaming ourselves and find ways to de-stress the lives we’re leading,” she said.  

At the beginning of the hour-long Woodstock event, Quart said she wanted to leave time for experiences about “how the middle-class precariat was playing out in this area.” She never quite got around to doing that. It would have been interesting if she had. I suspect the line between salariat and precariat is somewhat differently drawn in the Hudson Valley than it is in New York City, partly because the proportion of wealth the 1 percent has extracted upstate has been more modest. On the other hand, the 1 percent is well represented among this region’s second-home population.

Questions from the Woodstock audience of about 45 persons, arranged for the most part in ten rows of three chairs each like a single-aisle airplane, were supportive of social change. Is capitalism working? How does the United States get back to more social democracy? Aren’t people entitled to a universal basic income? How can we support institutions that stand up to Donald Trump?

Woodstock’s not in love with Donald Trump. It is the only Ulster County municipality where Trump received fewer votes in the 2016 election than Mitt Romney had gotten in 2012.

Quart’s response was measured. Squeezed was intended as more the work of a journalist and sociologist than of a political pundit. “We should think of these more imaginative solutions” was as far as she would go.

As they launch into the two months and three weeks before the midterm elections, the national Democrats are debating whether they would be better off in 2020 with a moderate presidential candidate who would appeal to the political center or with someone who would stoke up the Democratic base and present an alternative vision that could seize the nation’s attention. 

In The Great Divide, Stiglitz tells us that economic inequality is greater in America now than in any other industrialized nation. He thinks that dangerous not only to the economy but also to American democracy. He favors greater investment in education, technology, infrastructure and a reorganized healthcare system. He’d like to see a more egalitarian direction in tax and fiscal policies, a living wage and a closer look at a guaranteed minimum income.

Adjusting for inflation, the typical American family is worse off than it was 25 years ago. But our inequalities were not inevitable, Stiglitz wrote in The Great Divide. They were the result of our policies and politics. “Different politics could lead to different outcomes: better economic performance, however measured, and lower levels of inequality.”