Tag Archives: inequality

Science may not be the meritocracy we thought it to be: gender and race discrepancies are prevalent

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers highlighted the disparities in the scientific community in the US. Simply put, the US scientific workforce is not representative of the population. Barriers to entry and participation prevent important segments of the population, especially when it comes to race and gender.

Concepción Feminist Mural in Madrid. Wikimedia commons.

Researchers investigated the representation of different groups between more than 1 million articles in the Web of Science between 2008 and 2019. The groups are racial categories constructed in the American society: White, Black, Asian, and Latinx. These categories were also divided by gender (male and female).

The data showed that women, Black and Latinx scientists are underrepresented in various different scientific topics, while White and Asian men are generally overrepresented. In Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, Black, Latinx, and White women are underrepresented and Asian women have a medium representation. This is different in Psychology and Arts, both Asian women and men are underrepresented.

The most over-represented group in STEM are Asian men and, and the same carries in social sciences more related to economy and logistics topics. Black scientists are better represented only in research fields related to racial inequalities and African or African American culture. Something similar happens to Latinx authors that seem to be more involved in topics such as immigration, political identities, and racism. 

This graphic shows the representation of various racial, ethnic, and gender groups as published authors in various fields. It shows that Latino, Black, and white women are significantly underrepresented as authors in engineering and technology, mathematics, and physics publications and are heavily overrepresented in health fields. Credit: Diego Kozlowski/University of Luxembourg.

The authors also compared how specialized each group is. Asian scientists are more focused on a specific topic compared to White authors who are more scattered among the topics. In contrast, topics regarding gender identity and inequality are the focus of Black and Latinx women, emphasizing the gender role imposed in society and signaling that women are trying to shift perceptions in this field.

In terms of citation, Asian men are more cited in Social Sciences and are more likely to be involved in topics that are highly cited. In the Health topics, White authors are more cited, followed by Black, Asian, and Latinx. This is a clear confirmation that minoritized groups are more cited in topics less favored in the scientific community and are less cited in both lowly and highly cited topics.

These inequalities are indicative of the inequalities in American society. While this study focused on the US, this is a global problem that needs to be addressed. In addition to making academia fairer and more inclusive, research has also shown that diversity among research teams fosters innovation and more impactful research. For now, it appears the open and fair academia may not be all that open and fair after all.

Political polarization is on the rise around the globe, fueled by inequality

The world is more politically divided today than at any point in the last five decades, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

It’s not just where you live; people across the world are more entrenched in their political views, less open to differing ones, and identify themselves more strongly with the political movement they associate with. New research led by researchers at the University of St Andrews examines the drivers behind this increase in polarization, and what we can do to bridge the gaps again.

Tightening the ranks

“We know that people have been becoming more politically polarized over time, for example in the US, but we don’t know exactly why political identity is becoming so important,” says Dr. Alexander Stewart of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, lead author of the study. “We tried to understand this by developing a game theoretic model for the cultural evolution of party identity and comparing it to data.

“We found that if there is animosity or conflict between other types of identity groups, such as different racial groups, people will tend to shift their political identities over time to match up with their racial identity, leading to political polarization. This happens because it reduces conflict within a party. Factors such as inequality, which lead to greater animosity between identity groups, can trigger this process.”

The authors explain that populist movements — such as Brexit in the UK and the Trump campaign in the USA, — despite starting with support from ordinary citizens, over time develop strong associations with political identities and foster antagonism with opposing political movements. You’ve probably been able to see that unfolding in real-time, no matter which side of the political divide you yourself fall into.

But why does this process happen, and what drives it? The authors report that it comes down to the various social issues that fuel these movements in the first place. In the United States, for example, the Trump campaign catered to and was thus fueled, in part, racist sentiments among voters.

Addressing the rising tide of political polarization requires that we address these underlying issues first, and the greater overall issue of social inequality, the team notes. But that by itself will not be enough; the next step is for all political actors to take an active stance against these growing divisions. Those leading have to ask those that follow them to cooperate and find common ground even to those of opposing political sentiments.

The findings are based on a series of mathematical and computational models that the team — with members from the Universities of St Andrews, Princeton, and Pennsylvania — have run. These simulations examined how political attitudes and identities shifted over time in relation to growing inequality in our societies.

The results can be extrapolated to give us some insight into the rise of populist parties or movements that paint themselves as being “against the elites”, including supporters of Trump in the USA, Modi in India, Le Pen in France, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the Brexit movement in the UK.

“We found in the US for example that racial polarization expressed by voters has declined while political polarization between Republicans and Democrats has increased, and political parties have become increasingly sorted along racial lines,” Dr. Stewart adds. “This suggests that antagonism between racial groups has shifted to become associated with political identities over time.”

The team also attempted to introduce various conditions into their simulations to test for possible ways to reduce political polarization. One of the methods they tested was wealth distribution; their conclusion was that while such measures (attempts to reduce social inequality in all its forms) can set the groundwork, they can’t take us all the way. By themselves, they are not enough to reverse polarization. In order to realistically achieve this, people need to be called to action against it, the team explains.

“To reverse polarization you must first remove the conditions that helped create it (i.e., reduce inequality) and then engage in ‘coordinated efforts’ to change attitudes e.g., signaling by political elites in the form of bipartisan cooperation or improved rhetoric about the ‘other side’,” Dr. Stewart concludes.

The paper “Inequality, identity, and partisanship: How redistribution can stem the tide of mass polarization,” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

How ‘Doughnut Economics’ could transform the planet post-COVID

The pandemic with all its suffering and shuttering has exposed vulnerabilities in our deeply entrenched economic and social system. After all, the virus fell upon us because humans ultimately encroached on the environment, spilling over a viral reservoir just like you would stir a hornet’s nest — it was bound to happen eventually and it was as nasty as (at least some scientists) expected.

But at least some cities across the world have wised up to the limitations and flaws of unbridled economic development and are looking to a new economic model to help them not only recover from the pandemic but also do so in a way that reduces the risk of another such event happening again in the future. One such model is the so-called “Doughnut Economics.”

The Doughnut Economy model. Credit: Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health.

Doughnut Economics refers to a model that meets the needs of all within the means of the planet so that we don’t overshoot Earth’s fundamental resources and offset the delicate balance of its systems. This means aiming for activities that are bound to keep the climate stable, soils fertile, or the ozone layer intact.

The term was coined by British economist Kate Raworth, author of the book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. Although a doughnut-shaped economy sounds ridiculous, the model itself makes sense and the metaphor is straightforward.

Imagine a delicious doughnut. Its hollow center describes the proportion of people who lack access to basic necessities such as food, water, electricity, healthcare, and freedom of expression. The doughnut’s outer crust is the ceiling of Earth’s life-giving systems, which we shouldn’t cross in order to preserve the climate and keep the air and water clean. The edge of the inner ring represents minimal standards for a decent life that do not compromise the wellbeing of the environment.

Between this inner ring and the doughnut’s outer crust lies the Goldielocks zone, humanity’s sweet spot where people can live fulfilling lives without overshooting the planet’s resources. The Doughnut Economic model thus serves as a model for true sustainability, one where social and economic inequality isn’t inherently built-in.

In her book, Raworth outlines several pillars of the Doughnut Economy. These are summed up in a World Economic Forum blog post authored by the British economist herself.

Land and resources: how can the value of Earth’s natural commonwealth be more equitably distributed: through land reform, land-value taxes, or by reclaiming land as a commons? And how could understanding our planet’s atmosphere and oceans as global commons far better distribute the global returns to their sustainable use?

Money creation: why endow commercial banks with the right to create money as interest-based debt, and leave them to reap the rents that flow from it? Money could alternatively be created by the state, or indeed by communities as complementary currencies: it’s time to create a monetary ecosystem that can fulfill this distributive potential.

Enterprise: what business design models – such as cooperatives and employee-owned companies – can best ensure that committed workers, not fickle shareholders, reap a far greater share of the value that they help to generate?

Knowledge: how can the potential of the creative commons be unleashed internationally, through free open-source hardware and software, and the rise of creative commons licensing?

Technology: who will own the robots, and why should it be that way? Given that much basic research underlying automation and digitization has been publicly funded, should a share of the rewards not return to the public purse?

Credit: Kate Raworth.

Spurred by the pandemic, some cities across the world are taking steps towards transitioning to the Doughnut model. Amsterdam, for instance, became the first city in the world to formally implement this economic model in early April last year, during a time when the Dutch city had one of the highest mortality rates from the virus.

Amsterdam’s policymakers directly worked with the Doughnut Economics Action Lab, or DEAL, to downscale the doughnut model, which is intended as a global framework, into a city model.

The idea is to use the pandemic as a springboard for radical change so as to not return to “business as usual” if said business wasn’t working out. Some measures include new management systems for food and organic waste, as well as a new policy for consumer goods and the environment.

Besides Amsterdam, other cities across the world are embracing the doughnut economy, including Copenhagen and Brussels, as well as municipalities in Costa Rica, India, Bangladesh, Zambia, and Barbados, among others, which are currently planning out their own implementations.

If all goes well, and there is public support, the next obvious step is to transition the model nationally.

The wealth gap is at least 6,500 years old, finds Polish study

More than 6,500 years ago, in what is now northern Poland, the wealthy already ate much better than the poor, according to a new study. The findings show that a wealth gap existed much earlier than we thought and provide insights on some of Europe’s earliest farmers.

Some of the skeletons looked in the study. Credit Antiquity

Chelsea Budd from the Umeå University in Sweden and her colleagues looked at 6,600-year-old gravesites in the town of Osłonki to try to determine whether wealth inequality existed in these ancient societies. A quarter of them had been buried with copper beads, pendants, and headbands, according to their findings.

However, researchers were unsure whether this inequality in death translated into a wealth gap in life. Wealthy graves may reflect funerary donations to valued community members not necessarily their wealth in life, they argued. That’s why they took the study a step further.

Budd and her team examined stable isotopes from different burials at Osłonki. These are chemical elements such as carbon and nitrogen incorporated into someone’s skeleton that vary based on their diet.

“Initially, we were just interested in studying the food they ate to understand the development of farming,” said Budd in a statement.

However, the findings were very interesting. Those who had been buried with valuable beads and elaborate copper artifacts seem to have been wealthier in life as well as in death. The isotopes show that they probably had better access to cattle from high-quality pastures.

Furthermore, as agricultural land is often inherited, the likelihood that this inequality is multigenerational increases. The researchers believe that these high social classes probably are the descendants of the first humans that arrived in the Polish town, who would have taken the best pastures.

“We have uncovered some of the earliest evidence for a direct link between social status and long-term diet in prehistoric Europe,” said Budd.

“We are witnessing the emergence of social and economic inequality in early prehistoric communities – the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ – at a time much earlier than we thought.”

Budd and her team argued that farming wealth probably translated into more trading opportunities and material wealth, as most of the valuable grave goods were imported over long distances, with the copper needed to manufacture the artifacts originating far away in south-central Europe.

The town of Osłonki lasted for around 200 years, experiencing a rise in conflict and the construction of a wall and a ditch. Finally, around 4,400 BC, it was abandoned alongside many other communities in the region. This triggered the breakdown of the trade networks that introduced valuable goods into Northern Europe.

The study was published in the journal Antiquity.

SPENT helps people understand and fight against economic inequality

A new poverty simulation game called SPENT, developed at Simon Fraser University, aims to help people understand how poverty arises, and how it can be stopped.

Image via Pxhere.

Economic inequality is — and has been for some time now — growing across the globe. A team of researchers at Simon Fraser University are working to understand how people at large think about the issues of inequality and poverty, and are now sharing their findings in a five-part global study.

From whence doth poverty come?

“How people understand the causes of poverty influences their willingness to address inequality and help the poor,” says Lara Aknin, an SFU distinguished professor in the department of psychology and co-author of the paper.

“Our dream is to partner with the Vancouver School Board and classrooms around the city to investigate if we see similar long-lasting results using these interventions during these impressionable periods.”

The team drew on data from the World Values survey (corresponding to roughly 30,000 participants’ views) and an additional 2,400 participants that they recruited themselves. In total, the participants came from 34 different countries, the team explains.

While the study as a whole is definitely interesting, I want to focus on the last two portions of the study. During these, the team showed that a simple, cheap, “low-touch” intervention, corresponding to 10 minutes of playing a “poverty simulation” game called SPENT, can help people change their view on poverty and increase support against economic inequality, the team explains.

In SPENT (which you can play here), players are put in the shoes of an impoverished individual for one month and have to handle their daily financial decisions. The team invited 600 students at the university in the lab, dividing them into two groups. One group was asked to play the game, while the other group was used as a control and didn’t play SPENT.

Follow-up research over the next few months showed that those who played SPENT developed a stronger recognition of the causes of poverty, and made them less willing to support economic inequality for at least five months after playing the game.

“Attributing poverty to situational forces is associated with greater concern about inequality, preference for egalitarian policies, and inequality-reducing behaviour,” the team explains in their paper. “Situational attributions may be a potent psychological lever for lessening societal inequality.”

The team is confident that these interventions are scalable and can be used in the classroom to educate younger generations to see economic inequality for the situation-driven tragedy that it really is.

“Why do situational attributions for poverty motivate opposition to economic inequality? People are particularly sensitive to whether opportunities to get ahead in society are perceived to be available. For example, the belief that one’s economic standing is based on merit is a key feature of the American Dream.”

“Recognizing that situational factors beyond one’s personal control can contribute to poverty represents a potent threat to these perceptions.”

The paper “Shifting attributions for poverty motivates opposition to inequality and enhances egalitarianism” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Oxen, the ‘robots of the late Neolithic’ jump-started economic inequality

New research is looking at the birth of economic inequality — and says it came riding the ox.

Image credits Jan Nijman.

Research at the Santa Fe Institute reveals how the deep and lasting economic divisions that took root in Eurasia around seven thousand years ago can be traced back to the adoption of the ox-drawn plow. This advancement, the team explains, decoupled productivity from human labor, which led to the social strata of haves and have-nots.

State of the cart

“Ox drawn plows were the robots of the late Neolithic,” explains co-author Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute.

“The effect was the same as today: growing economic disparities between those who owned the robots and those whose work the robots displaced.”

The team charts the surge of prehistoric inequality that sprouted around seven thousand years ago in societies across Eurasia in a new study. The economic origins of this surge, they explain, lies in the adoption of ox-drawn plows. Their results conflict with the long-held view that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture led to the rise of inequality.

According to the team, it wasn’t agriculture that caused it — it was a technology that made land more valuable and labor less.

In the first of two companion papers, the team presents new statistical methods of comparing wealth inequality needed for the ancient world — ones that can be applied to different kinds of wealth, societies, and regions, at different times throughout history. The team’s analysis included data from 150 archaeological sites and revealed a steep increase in inequality in Eurasia around 4,000 BC. That year is important as it’s several millennia after the advent of agriculture. This, along with the fact that the team “observed that some societies who adopted agriculture were remarkably egalitarian for thousands of years,” suggests agriculture didn’t cause the rise in inequality.

“The surprise here isn’t so much that inequality takes off later on, it’s that it stayed low for such a long time,” says lead author Amy Bogaard, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford who is also an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

The team explains that agriculture around 4,000 BC (at least in Europe and the Middle East) revolved around patchworks of small garden plots, similar to today’s allotments in the UK.

Families would work together to grow crops on these plots, mostly cereals and pulses. Work was done by hand — the soil was tilled using hoes, sometimes using unspecialized cattle such as aging milk cows, and the crops needed to be harvested by hand. Take into consideration that the plots also needed constant surveillance to protect them from wild animals, and you get quite the busy landscape. In effect, how much work a family was able to put out limited how much food they were able to produce.

Where the cow comes in

Image credits Peter Wieser.

However, those farmers who could raise and maintain specialized cattle (plow oxen) could work much more land — a single farmer with an ox team could cultivate ten times the land area of a farmer that only used a hoe. In time, their greater production capability gave them access to more resources, which they used to acquire more land and oxen. The team explains that those who owned land and ox teams also began to primarily work with more stress-tolerant crops, like barley or certain kinds of wheat, further reducing the amount of labor they needed to put in.

By the second millenium BC, farming landscapes had transitioned to large fields, and societies were deeply divided between landowners (who passed their holdings to their children), and land-poor or landless families.

How this transition took place is detailed in the team’s second accompanying paper. It shows a key distinction between farming systems where human labor was the limiting factor for production versus those where human labor was more expendable, and land became the limiting factor.

“So long as labor was the key input for production, inequality was limited because families did not differ much in how much labor they could deploy to produce crops,” explains co-author Mattia Fochesato, an economist at Bocconi University. “But when the most important input became land, differences between families widened because land and other material forms of wealth could be accumulated and transmitted over generations.””By chance, or force, or hard work, some families came to have a lot more than others. Then radical inequality arose.”

One consequence of inequality, Bogaard notes, is that the most unequal societies tended to be more fragile and susceptible to political upheaval or climate change. The team cautions that their findings, although dealing with ancient events, are still very much relevant today.

“If there are opportunities to monopolize land or other key assets in a production system, people will. And if there aren’t institutional or other redistributive mechanisms, inequality is always where we’re going to end up,” Bogaard says. “There are many other kinds of assets now that we should think about people’s capacity to own and benefit from [apart from land].”

The paper “Comparing ancient inequalities: the challenges of comparability, bias, and precision” has been published in the journal Antiquity.

The US wealth gap hasn’t been this big since the “Roaring ’20s”

The Roaring Twenties — a period also called the Jazz Age, the Age of Intolerance, and the Age of Wonderful Nonsense. Everything seemed possible with new technology, there was opportunity everywhere you looked, the sky was the limit. But, as the high-life 1920s society became more enamored of wealth and everyday luxuries, another unseen group of people grew in numbers: the poor. The roaring twenties also had roaring inequality — and we’re seeing the same trends in today’s society.

The wealth gap is increasing at an alarming rate. Image credits: Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

The rich get richer — a saying that never seems to lose its relevance — can accurately describe today’s America. According to a working paper by two leading economists, the 400 richest Americans (0.00025% of the population) own as many assets = as 150 million adults in the bottom 60% of the wealth distribution. Gabriel Zucman, one of the authors who has also supported a tax on the rich, concludes that “U.S. wealth concentration seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties.”

When it comes to inequality, we’re more used to talking about the wage gap — but instead, this study focused on the wealth gap, which includes the entire assets held by a household. Since the 1980s, the wealth of the top 0.1% of people (who have over $20 million in assets) has substantially grown. The wealth of the top 0.01% has grown even more. However, for people below the 0.1%, there hasn’t been a big jump. It’s not just that the middle class is losing ground, but even the “middle rich” — the people who are in the top 10% but not in the top 1% — are losing ground. So it’s not that the rich get richer — it’s more like the very rich get much richer.

Image credits: Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

There’s also a disturbing racial component when it comes to the wealth gap: melanin seems to be inversely correlated to wealth. The mean wealth of black households is $138,200 and  $933,700 for white households.

Recent studies are likely to underestimate the level and rise of inequality, as financial globalization makes it increasingly hard to measure wealth at the top, researchers say. As a result, we are seeing wealth inequality resembling that of the 20s. While the economic factors are different compared to then, the concerns are very similar. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 Americans has no savings at all, and while profits are soaring for many industries, salaries are often stagnating.

There is no sign whatsoever that this trend will stop or reverse.

The Roaring Twenties ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and were followed by the Great Depression — one of the most severe periods of economic hardships in modern history.

campus inequality

U.S. News rankings driving economic inequality on campus

Earning a college degree used to be a proven way to climb the social mobility ladder but a new Politico investigation suggests universities all over the United States are reinforcing existing wealth.

According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the country’s elite universities such as Yale or Princeton admit more students coming from families whose earnings are in the top one percent than the bottom 60 percent combined. Writing for Politico, Benjamin Wermund argues that the U.S. News rankings are at least partly to blame for this situation. These rankings rely on criteria which reward schools that favor wealthier students over less wealthy applicants.

When universities chase questionable rankings, students get left behind

The assumption is that the more a school spends per student, the better its ranking ought to be, with little concern for economic efficiency. The downside is that a system predicated on wealth fosters a growing resentful underclass. Studies already report that economic mobility in the United States is seriously hindered, making many question the fabled American Dream. One 2015 report by the Center on Poverty and Inequality, for instance, used recent IRS data to show that ‘roughly half of parental income advantages are passed onto the next generation in the form of higher earnings.’

One obvious way to bridge the wealth gap is to ensure that more and more of the population earns a college degree. With a degree, individuals coming from low-income families can get better-paying jobs and have a better career outlook. If anything, today’s academic paradigm seems to run contrary to this thinking.

Part of the problem is that schools are now chasing the US News rankings which for the past 24 years has compared national colleges and universities using questionable criteria.

  • Graduation and retention rates (22.5%). Schools are basically rewarded for graduating more students. This advantages both low-income and high-income students. Top universities have fewer low-income students who are less likely to drop out, however, so their rankings climb.
  • Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%). This questionable criterion is based on scores which college deans, presidents, and provosts give to other universities. Many critics have voiced concerns that some university leaders might score rivals lowers just to boost their own campus score.
  • Student selectivity (12.5%). SAT and ACT scores make up 65 percent of a university’s selectivity ranking while high school standing accounts for another 25 percent. Standardized tests disproportionately benefit students from families which can afford to pay for test preparation. One 2016 report found students from the top income bracket scored more than 130 points higher on all portions of the SAT than their peers in the bottom bracket.
  • Faculty resources (20%) and Financial resources (10%). This simply measures how much a school spends per student and faculty. This motivates schools to keep class size small and accept more well-off students who don’t require financial aid and thus free up resources to pay faculty more.
  • Alumni giving (5%). US News seems to think that giving indirectly correlates to student satisfaction. This is a rather flawed assumption, however, since Ivy League schools are known to court alumni for donations. According to Harvard Crimson, more than 40% of Harvard’s class of 2021 have family members who attended before them.
  • Graduation rate performance (7.5%). This is perhaps the only criterion that advantages low-income students. This portion rewards schools that are working to help the most disadvantaged students.

“We’re not setting the admissions standards at any schools,” said Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News who develops the methodologies and surveys for the rankings. “Our main mission for our rankings is to provide information for prospective students and their parents, and we’re measuring academic quality. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, and we believe we’ve been driving transparency in higher education data. Our methodology and the data we’ve chosen for the best colleges rankings is to measure which schools are the top in academic excellence.”

The backlash

It’s not only elite colleges and universities that are chasing these rankings. The Southern Methodist University in Dallas organized a one-billion dollar fundraiser to purposely improve many of the areas ranked by US News. Baylor University, a private Christian school in Texas, invested hundreds of millions into faculty salaries and program that might rank them higher. They even have a stated goal of breaking the top 50 schools within ten years. Baylor University is now ranked #71, up four positions from their 2012 standing.

This sort of spending means additional resources are required. Most often than not, tuitions are affected. For instance, in 2002, Baylor students were charged $17,214 a year in tuition and fees, but that figure quickly soared to $44,040 in 2017. Overall, tuition at public colleges and universities has increased by at least 28 percent over the past decade.

Meanwhile, Georgia State University reduced admission emphasis on SAT scores, preferring to focus on high school scores, which it found to be a better predictor of academic performance. Georgia State has also doubled the number of students on Pell Grants, who now make 60 percent of its student body.  The bottom 60 percent of income earners rose by 11 percentage points from 2000 to 2011, to 54 percent. Georgia State is thus a successful model that motivates low-income students to succeed. Despite these achievements, the university dropped 30 spots in the US News ranking.

All of this raises serious questions about the validity of a higher education system where tuition fees are already skyrocketing. Of course, no one can force US News to revise its rankings. And maybe that’s beside the point because at the end of the day universities ought to guide their policies with the public’s best interest in mind.

“If some foreign power wanted to diminish higher education in America, they would have created the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” Brit Kirwan, former chancellor of the University of Maryland system, told Politico. “You need both more college graduates in the economy and you need many more low-income students getting the benefit of higher education — and U.S. News and World Report has metrics that work directly in opposition to accomplishing those two things that our nation so badly needs.”

Money can’t buy happiness the saying goes; but it does buy a longer life, Harvard replies

The richest American men may live up to 15 years longer than the poorest ones, and the richest women 10 years more than their poorest counterparts, a new study found.

More as in years of life. Oh, and “Santa” as in crippling economic inequality.
Image via behance

Life becomes a whole lot better and easier when you have wads of cash to throw at your problems until they go away — but also way healthier and longer, a new Harvard study finds. An analysis of 1.4 billion Internal Revenue Service records, focusing on the link between income and life expectancy, found that low-income residents in wealthy areas such as New York City and San Francisco live longer on average than those in poorer regions.

This comes down in part to a healthier lifestyle in more engaging communities; low-income residents in wealthier cities are less likely to drink as much, they exercise more and have lower rates of obesity than residents with similar incomes in less affluent cities. But by themselves, these factors aren’t enough to explain the life expectancy gap that the team found. And, as David Cutler, the Otto Eckstein Professor of Applied Economics and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says, it’s unclear what other factors might contribute to the difference.

“It’s not an overwhelming correlation with medical care or insurance coverage,” he said. “It’s not that the labor market is getting better — it’s not correlated with unemployment, or the expansion or contraction of the labor force, or how socially connected people feel. The only thing it seems to be correlated with is how educated and affluent the area is, so low-income people live longer in New York or San Francisco, and they live shorter in the industrial Midwest.”

“Previously, we could say what life expectancy was like in Massachusetts as compared to Michigan, but the problem is that Massachusetts is much richer than Michigan, and we know mortality varies with income,” he continued. “What we wanted to do was compare the same people in both cities — a shopkeeper in Detroit with a shopkeeper in Boston, not a biotech executive. That’s what we can do with this data that people haven’t been able to do previously.”

The richest American men live 15 years longer than the poorest men, while the richest American women live 10 years longer than the poorest women, according to the Health Inequality Project. Image credits David Cutler.

Cutler and his co-authors, including former Harvard Economics Professor Raj Chetty now at Stanford University, mined federal tax records from 1999 through to 2014 for data and sorted people into 100 percentiles according to their income. They then looked at their death records and calculated the mortality rate and life expectancy at age 40 for each income bracket. For men, the gap between the richest and poorest brackets is a staggering 15 years. In women, the difference clocks in at around a 10-year gap between the richest and poorest bracket — the equivalent of the health effects of a lifetime of smoking.

“These differences are very, very troubling,” Cutler said. “The magnitude is startling. You might expect two or three years of life differential — which is roughly what we would get by curing cancer — but 10 or 15 years … it’s an immense difference. We don’t know exactly why or what to do about it, but now we have the tools to ask those questions.”

It’s not hard to figure out that a higher income translates to a longer life, but the researchers were surprised to discover that this trend never plateaus.

“There’s no income [above] which higher income is not associated with greater longevity, and there’s no income below which less income is not associated with lower survival,” he added. “It was already known that life expectancy increased with income, so we’re not the first to show that, but … everyone thought you had to hit a plateau at some point, or that it would plateau at the bottom, but that’s not the case.”

And just like income, life expectancy is unequally distributed around the U.S. When they superimposed their findings on the map, the researcher found that lower brackets tend to concentrate in the Midwest Rust Belt.

“What emerges strongly is that there is a belt from West Virginia, Kentucky, and down through parts of southern Ohio, through Oklahoma and into Texas — it’s not a story of the Deep South,” Cutler said. “The variability in [areas] where high-income people live longest is not as large and is much less geographically concentrated. You don’t see this same type of belt — it’s scattered all over.”

Life expectancy for (right) men and (left) women; bottom quartile. The darker colors on the maps indicate the lowest life expectancy. They range from fewer than 74.5 years for men and 80.1 years for women.
Image credits David Cutler.

Cutler and Chetty then calculated how life expectancy changed over time, and here the ever growing income gap also became apparent. While life expectancy has steadily increased for the wealthiest, it has only barely gone up for low-income Americans.

“The increase has been approximately three years at the high end, versus zero for the lowest incomes,” Cutler said. “This is important, because it has major implications for Social Security policy. People say, ‘Americans are living longer, so we ought to delay the age of retirement,’ but … it’s a little bit unfair to say to low-income people that they’re going to get Social Security and Medicare for fewer years because investment bankers are living longer.”

Cutler, Chetty and their co-authors have made the data publicly and freely available. They hope that this will encourage further research into how life expectancy is impacted by economic and social policies.

“This paper really has two missions,” said Cutler. “One is to present this data, but the other is to create this data set so it can then be used by policymakers and researchers everywhere. This data has never been looked at with this level of granularity before.”

Living with less is something many people are comfortable with, even something that gives them happiness. But living less is a whole different matter, and I think that this study speaks volumes about ever-widening wealth gap in the United States. Not only shorter lives but ones that people will enjoy less — previous studies have also shown how economic growth not accompanied by the distribution of wealth leads to overall unhappiness in lower-income classes.

A fair system of wealth distribution — or at least a fairer one — needs to be set in place so that these effects don’t spiral out of hand and end up leading us to a real-life “1984“. Until then, as income inequality and wealth stratification compound over time, their effects are only going to increase, for better or for worse, depending on how padded your wallet is.

The full study, titled “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014” has been published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association and can be read here.

Rich but not happier — why economic growth doesn’t always translate to happiness

It’s easy to assume that with economic gain comes happiness — we live in capitalism, after all. But science comes to prove us all wrong yet again, and shows that the link between economics and happiness is much more complicated that we thought. Research shows that getting a promotion or a salary raise can increase a person’s satisfaction and give an emotional boost, but only for a short while. Not even something as huge as winning the lottery doesn’t make a permanent change to people’s overall life satisfaction. Money can’t buy happiness, it seems.

And just as a person’s happiness is a result of more than just money, a country’s economic growth doesn’t directly translate into happier citizens — this is known as the Easterlin paradox, after economist Richard Easterlin, the one who observed and documented the phenomena in 1974.

So money can’t buy happiness for countries either, ok, cool. Only that for some…It totally does.

Image via davidruyet.wordpress

What gives!?

Critics have pointed out that in several countries — Italy, Denmark, Luxembourg for example — citizens’ happiness has increased in tandem with the local economy. But for the United States it hasn’t — the Easterlin paradox still applies here: major economic gains over the past 40 years have not led to an overall increase in national happiness. So why does that happen?

Well, psychological scientists Shigehiro Oishi from the University of Virginia and Selin Kesebir from London’s Business School think they may have found the reason why some countries show the paradox and others don’t: income inequality.

“Economic growth is typically not shared equally across segments of society and often results in increased income inequality,” the researchers explain. So, although a country’s GDP may be rapidly expanding, only relatively few people are actually benefiting from this economic prosperity.

The two tested their hypothesis, and their findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

“Our analyses demonstrate that once one considers income inequality, the Easterlin paradox is not so paradoxical anymore,” the researchers write.

Drawing on data pertaining to economic growth, income inequality and reported happiness levels from 34 countries, Oishi and Kesebir found “support for the idea that the Easterlin paradox can be explained by the toxic effects of income inequality.” They started by mining data from the World Database of Happiness, looking at 16 developed countries in Europe and Asia that had at least 10 years of data available between 1959-2006. They correlated this with the countries’ GDP, taken from the World Development Indicators online database, and calculated income inequality for each, using the Gini index.

“For a nation’s life satisfaction to increase, producing more wealth is not sufficient. The fair distribution of the added wealth may critically determine whether life satisfaction will rise on the whole,” they write.

They found that changes in income equality was a better explanation for happiness better than GDP per capita alone. In years with high income equality, economic growth entailed an increase in general life satisfaction. In years with economic prosperity but large gaps in income equality there was no increase in a population’s happiness.

“What was surprising was that happiness levels did not change from 1947 when GDP per capita was $13,407 (in current dollars) to 1970 when GDP per capita rose to $22,996,” the authors explain. “On the basis of our findings, it is safe to say that if income and happiness go together, it is when income is distributed evenly.”

A second set of data was collected from the Latinobarómetro, a representative public opinion survey conducted annually in 18 Latin American countries and Spain. In both sets of analyses, the researchers found a significant interaction between GDP per capita and the Gini coefficient; citizens’ life satisfaction, on average, was lower in years of greater income inequality.

“Considering the recent trend of growing income inequality in many parts of the world, our findings suggest that more instances of the Easterlin paradox will be observed, with economic growth not necessarily increasing the happiness of a country’s citizens,” Oishi and Kesebir conclude.

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How the rich stay rich: social status is more inheritable than height

UK researchers highlight once more a depressing topic: income inequality and lack of social mobility. After they tracked families that sent their children to study at Oxford and Cambridge – the two most prestigious and elitist Universities in the world since 1096 – the researchers found that students were more likely to inherit their parent’s social status than their height. In other words, your social status sticks with you almost just as good as the physical characteristics you inherit. Is that to say that rich or poor people are meant to stay that way, like it’s coded in their “genes”? There will always be rag to riches stories, but what the study concludes is that for most people, social mobility is extremely difficult.

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Credit: Village Magazine Ireland

The team made up of Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, and Neil Cummins of the London School of Economics, studied the surnames of English students who had attended Oxford and Cambridge in the past 800 years or so. Because the two universities have always been a haven for the elite, the attendance was used as a proxy for high social status. But what does surnames have to do with anything? Most surnames disappear or transform during the course of four to five generations as people get married and mix families. In fact, marriage is most likely the oldest form of social status manipulation. In the case of the elite, however, things are a bit different. Surprisingly, there’s so much you can learn about a person ony from a surname.

“For example, in England, we know the names of most people who went to Oxford or Cambridge from about 1200 right up until the present,” Clark says.

“If I just know that you share a rare surname with someone who was wealthy in 1800, I can predict now that you’re nine times more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge. You’re going to live two years longer than an average person in England. You’re going to have more wealth. You’re more likely to be a doctor. You’re more likely to be an attorney,” Clark says.

The study found that the “correlation coefficient” across generations (0 meaning not correlated at all and 1 meaning perfect positive correlation) was between 0.7 and 0.9 for generations of the same family going to Oxbridge. In comparison, the correlation coefficient for height between generations is just 0.64, according to one study cited by the researchers.

One might think the findings can be easily proven wrong. After all, posh students from Oxford and Cambridge might not be the most representative sample group for assessing social mobility. After Clark and colleagues checked to see how the situation holds in other countries, however, we now realize this is a global insight. A historical one, if I may add.

The team found the same numbers held true for England, Sweden, the United States, India, China, Japan and Chile. Even more startling, the correlation was the same in the Middle Ages as they are today.

“We can’t predict the individual aspects of where you’ll end up, but if we want to rank you overall in society, maybe as much as 60 percent of the outcome is determined at the time of conception,” Clark says.

Seeing how the industrial revolution or even the world wars haven’t change much about social mobility in the past couple of century, it’s hard to imagine what can. Yet, social mobility isn’t the same all over the world, being mostly tied to income inequality. The graph below, taken from a study by Miles Corak of the University of Ottawa, illustrates this.

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The United Nations has released its Human Development Index for 2014. European countries dominate again, the US is 28th

The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income indices used to rank countries into four tiers of human development. It is, while not nearly perfect, one of the best indications we have of a country’s general standard of living.

The 2014 report was released on July 2014, and the US have little reason for joy; while in the raw HDI the country ranks 5th, where it really matters, in the Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI), the US comes in at 28. This means that the very rich are pulling the country massively up in raw numbers, but overall, there is a huge gap between the rich and the middle class and poor.

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As you can see, 8 out of the top 10 IHDI countries are from Europe, with Australia coming in at 2nd and Canada at 9. The trend continues further on, and out of the 27 countries which come above the US, 23 are European. It’s also interesting to note that in the past report, the US was on 16, so there has been quite a significant drop.

The one thing that America has to its defense is its population. The top countries generally have a much lower population than the over 300 million which inhabit the US, and it’s much more difficult to manage a higher population. To make things even worse, they are also dealing with a significant immigrant population – but then again, so are many countries from Europe.

Since 2001, Norway has been declared the top country every year except for 2005 and 2006, when Iceland took the crown. Before that, it was Canada’s reign, but Canadians are also starting to deal with major inequality.

However, the HDI and IHDI aren’t the be-all end-all of a country. There has been significant criticism on these rankings, especially that they don’t have any ecological considerations and ignore the technological advancements in a country.

You can read the full report here.