Measuring impacts of income inequality on democracy

By: Gretchen Ritter,  Harold Tanner Dean, College of Arts & Sciences
September 16, 2015

Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, writes about democracy and inequality in this piece in The Cornell Daily Sun.

"Apart from this discussion about the nature and meaning of economic inequality in the United States, my own interest in this topic comes from a different concern — namely, what impact inequality is likely to have on American democracy. I do not believe in perfect equality. I agree with those who contend that the U.S. was founded on a commitment to equality of opportunity rather than equality of results. Indeed, for opportunity to be meaningful, one would expect to see some inequality of results. Natural endowments are never distributed equally, but whether a society permits its members to do the most with them is the test of its social character, and for a democracy, a test of its legitimacy.

"Nonetheless, there are many factors that can thwart social opportunity, and diminished social opportunity can have a dampening effect on democracy. Social opportunity depends on many things, like legal equality and fairness, educational structures that allow people to develop their talents and economic and social structures that make it possible for individual dreams to be realized for those who have the savvy and determination to see them through. No society provides all of these things in equal measure to all members of their communities. What town you were born into, what local schools you get to attend, what year you graduate and what connections and opportunities your family can provide you with all make a difference. But when the differences become too great, to the degree that social opportunity does not feel like a meaningful ideal anymore for large sectors of our community, we all should worry. Research suggests that economic inequality has now made it much harder for the children of working class Americans to be successful beyond the level of their parents. And for African Americans, this past year has raised fresh concerns about their ability to be treated fairly by our justice and law enforcement systems. Both of these issues threaten our democratic community."

Read the entire piece.

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