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Amy L. Sherman

Does Inequality = Injustice? (Part 1)

Nothing rankles quite so much as perceived unfairness. Yesterday at our day camp for inner-city kids, Xavier threw a fit because his classmate Marika was getting rides between our Family Center and the local school. Both children have asthma, and Xavier couldn't comprehend why Marika should receive special treatment. It was difficult for him to understand that his asthma was not as serious as hers, that he was better able to make the trek on foot than was she.

There's something very American about getting agitated over inequalities--after all, we proudly proclaim that "all men are created equal." On the other hand, our love for freedom and opportunity legitimizes differences: most of us accept an economic system that rewards those who work harder or perform better.

In recent years, however, a significant number of opinion shapers--Robert Reich, during his tenure as Labor Secretary; the editors at the New York Times, Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, the American Prospect, and other elite journals; politicians such as Richard Gephardt and Pat Buchanan; economists such as Lester Thurow and Lawrence Mishel; and writers such as Michael Lind, Robert Frank, and Philip Cook--have asserted vigorously that today's brand of American capitalism encourages an unacceptable degree of income inequality. These commentators argue that the gap between the rich and poor has grown at an alarming rate in recent years. They worry that middle-class Americans are so pinched by stagnating wages that they cannot afford the American dream. Mishel claims that middle-class family incomes stalled during the 1980s, and that between 1989 and 1993, median family incomes actually fell as hourly compensation declined. Union leader Ronald Blackmore asserts that "60 percent of families' [incomes] have actually fallen . . . despite the fact that today workers are working longer hours than they ever have, the American worker is more productive than ever, and the country is richer than it ever has been." Simply ...

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