Income Inequality

The Cultural Impact of Income Inequality

Over the past several decades, as tax cuts and other economic policies have benefited wealthy Americans at the expense of lower and middle-class Americans, the gap between the wealthy and the poor has continued to widen. A number of factors account for this; not only have wages remained virtually stagnant since the 1970s despite accelerating economic growth overall, but the cost of living has also increased, as have expenses for education and health care. This radical transformation in the country’s economic landscape has not only had effects on the financial world, but on the broader cultural environment that informs human behavior in society. Nearly every aspect of life is affected, from entertainment to politics to our shared system of fundamental values. 

Perhaps the most striking example of the broader impacts of income inequality is the fact that rich people live longer lives than poor people. For some groups of disadvantaged people, life expectancy is shorter than it was for their parents, pointing to the extreme effects of these people’s inability to earn as much as their parents did. A number of factors account for this difference in life expectancy; one possible explanation is racism in the healthcare industry, as minorities are both likely to receive less in wages and face discrimination in hospitals and doctor’s offices. Another factor is the fact that people are not able to retire as young as they used to be able to; many workers continue their jobs into their 60’s and 70’s, opening them up to stress and work-related health complications in old age. Additionally, as healthcare costs increase, many lower-income individuals may delay or opt out of doctors’ visits over financial concerns, leading to exacerbated illnesses and early death.

The type of work people engage in, too, is shaped by income inequality. While human societies have virtually always been divided by class, with lower classes working in service of the upper classes, the widening income gap between the classes has led to an explosion of service-related jobs, such as manicure and massage therapy. These types of jobs often employ immigrants and workers who did not receive a college degree, and are characterized by low pay and poor working conditions. Nail salons in particular are plagued by poor and illegal working conditions, leading to a statewide investigation by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

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This category of work, which many call “wealth work,” also applies to jobs like driving an Uber or delivering food. Though these jobs are beneficial to those without a college education, particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the American manufacturing industry, they also point to a cultural shift towards more rigid definitions of class, which makes it hard for lower-class individuals to advance in their careers. What’s more, these jobs are often performed with a certain degree of anonymity, as they are performed through an app or in urban business centers far from the worker’s place of residence, in contrast with the more personal interactions between the classes of several decades ago.

The gap in income between the classes correlates with an increase in polarization in American politics; as the Right has moved further to the political right under authoritarian leader Donald Trump, the Democratic Party as a whole has moved to the left in recent years, with once-taboo leftist policy positions like a substantial raise of minimum wage, entirely socialized medicine, the cancellation of student debt, and the idea of a universal basic income becoming topics of open discussion. The wealthy class has also transformed politics through the use of substantial political donations, with Donald Trump having raised well over $100 million for his re-election campaign this year alone. Wealthy donors, including oil executives and Wall Street titans, have successfully lobbied to cut taxes on the super-rich and roll back regulations which are meant to protect customers but impose costs on large companies. On a large scale, the effects of these policy changes have been to further disenfranchise the lower and middle classes in service of the upper class, as evidenced by the rapidly declining quality-of-life of most Americans.