In December 2013, a year into his second term, Barack Obama identified “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” as “the defining challenge of our time.” That observation — two years after Occupy Wall Street, four and half years into the “recovery” from the Great Recession, and eighteen years since the growing income share of the top one percent surpassed that of the bottom fifty percent — was both true and trivial.
Now, a long year into a new administration determined to deepen that divide — even as it mines its resentments — our inequality persists in starker and starker dimensions.
The digital project “Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality,” is an effort to grapple with that challenge — its dimensions, its roots, its causes, and its consequences.My motivation and interest in this project flows from several sources. As an historian of American public policy, I have written on the political economy of the New Deal, the politics of American health policy, and the long shadow of racial segregation in American cities. The central theme of this work, I came to realize, was the failure of public policy to redress inequality and, in many instances, its eagerness to sustain and widen that inequality.
As a faculty member at a large public university, I have, over the last quarter century, seen the fortunes and expectations of my students hammered by unrelenting economic challenges, including the erosion of state support for K-12 and post-secondary education.
And, as a researcher for a state policy think-tank (the Iowa Policy Project, an affiliate of the Economic Policy Institute’s EARN network), I have come to appreciate not just the corrosive effect that bad policy can have on equality and equal opportunity, but the damage that inequality can do to democratic aspirations and institutions.
For all of these reasons — academic, pedagogical, and political — I started assembling “Growing Apart.” Some of the pieces first appeared as blog posts for various outlets, and preliminary versions of the project were published at Inequality.org and as a series at Dissent. Intended as a “live” resource, this new version of Growing Apart incorporates the latest data and new research (especially in the wake of the Great Recession) on inequality’s causes and consequences.