The Monitor's View

Feeling poor? Wealthy? Here's a reason why.

More studies probe gaps between people, especially in income. This trend only reinforces a self-image based on stereotypes and relative comparisons. Isn't identity anchored first in the absolutes of life?

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    A woman with the Occupy Wall Street movement wipes sweat from her face on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Occupy groups from across the country gathered July 5 in Philadelphia to unify their far-flung movement against economic inequality.
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Almost every day, a new study points to gaps between people – in income, education, debt, values, even brain size. The latest report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, for example, finds a third of Americans have moved up in income class over four decades while 16 percent have dropped.

The most commonly cited “gap” is the rising disparity of income between the wealthy and poor. It helped spawn the “Occupy” movement last year with a focus on “the 99 percent.” Today’s politics revolves around campaign talk of “the wealth gap.”

Researchers both left and right are writing books that explore such differences between people.

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Conservative political scientist Charles Murray’s work “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” tries to define a new kind of class system based on what the wealthy must do. Peter Edelman at Georgetown University has written “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.” And Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues in a new paper that the gap between affluent suburbanites and the urban poor is driven in part by the government granting a tax deduction for home mortgage interest.

This trend toward focusing on what divides us comes with a cost. It polarizes politics, such as the current clash over whether to cut spending or raise taxes. And gap studies are also constantly changing as researchers find new gaps or redefine old ones, causing confusion over how to bridge them.

Harvard academic Robert Putnam, for example, tried to persuade an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week that Americans must focus less on gaps in race and wealth and more on differences between “classes” and the need for social mobility.

“The class gap over the last 20 years in unmarried births, controlling for race, has doubled, and the racial gap, controlling for class, has been cut in half,” he said. “Twenty years ago the racial gap was the dominant gap in unmarried births – and now the class gap is by far.”

What is easily forgotten in such data is that many people measure themselves less against one another and more against the absolutes of life, such as virtues. Am I being truthful with myself and others? How can I learn to love others by helping those in need? Where can I express life, using the talents I have?

The tendency to make relative comparisons to others may be useful, especially if they evoke empathy to help the needy or inspire people to achieve more. But they can obscure a primary human need to be grounded in ideas that create a person’s identity without being assigned to a class, group, or category. Accepting stereotypes of one’s self – and others – can create a limiting effect on the ability to choose a new path.

Studies of “gaps” can guide social action and government policies, but they can be taken too far – or taken too seriously by individuals who may feel trapped by labels of comparison.

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