America's big wealth gap: Is it good, bad, or irrelevant?
The gap between rich and poor is at its widest since the Roaring '20s. Obama complains that it's unfair, but a growing chorus of economists and sociologists say it's worse than that.
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Some experts who study inequality argue that it has contributed to a range of damaging social problems. British scholar Richard Wilkinson has pointed to strong correlations between the level of inequality in advanced nations and certain health problems, a decline in trust of others, and higher rates of imprisonment.Skip to next paragraph
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It's not holding America back
For most Americans, the big economic priority for government to address is job growth. And among people who care about that, many aren't sure if measures aimed at reducing inequality will help.
Luis Tello, a young Bostonian who works in network marketing, says the economy will do better if people "think abundantly," which will help them see opportunities, rather than focus on who is getting how much.
His theme is similar to what Rabbi Aryeh Spero argued in a recent column for The Wall Street Journal: that US prosperity is built on biblical teachings that enshrine personal property as well as compassion, and that make envy a sin.
A range of other arguments surface for why Americans shouldn't focus too much on inequality.
Some economists argue that misguided efforts to fix it, such as with programs that end up expanding the welfare state, might slow long-term growth.
Others, while saying inequality matters for society, don't believe it's holding back job growth in a significant way. "It's a bad thing, but is it [a] linchpin for economic success?" asks Stephen Rose, a Georgetown University economist who has studied the health of the middle class. "I don't think this [inequality] means we can never have a low unemployment rate again."
Skeptics also question whether inequality is a threat to political and social stability. American democracy, after all, has shown resilience despite ups and downs of inequality in the past. And some researchers say the great class divide is not really about income distribution.
On the political right, author Charles Murray has stirred this discussion with a new book called "Coming Apart." He sees a sharply divided America, with a faltering working class and an out-of-touch elite, but argues that the core issues are all about social behaviors such as churchgoing and community involvement.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum emphasizes some similar themes. For example, he argues that the economy will get back to full strength only if Americans can revive their family-and-community ethic, as well as their work ethic.
Where many free-market advocates emphasize the virtues of individualism, Mr. Santorum has hammered a different message on the campaign trail: "America is about more than just you. America's about service and sacrifice ... making a contribution to the greater good." Talking with voters in Iowa, he said, "When the family breaks down, America doesn't survive."
Santorum's words are just one of the reminders, from left and right, that the income gap is just part of a larger web of economic and social challenges. Even so, it promises to remain a source of hot debate between now and the November election.
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