Inequality in America

Race, Poverty, and Fulfilling Democracy's Promise


By Stephen M. Caliendo

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  1. Trade Paperback $33.00
  2. ebook $19.99

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 18, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Why does inequality have such a hold on American society and public policy? And what can we, as citizens, do about it? Inequality in America takes an in-depth look at race, class and gender-based inequality, across a wide range of issues from housing and education to crime, employment and health. Caliendo explores how individual attitudes can affect public opinion and lawmakers’ policy solutions. He also illustrates how these policies result in systemic barriers to advancement that often then contribute to individual perceptions. This cycle of disadvantage and advantage can be difficult-though not impossible-to break. “Representing” and “What Can I Do?” feature boxes throughout the book highlight key public figures who have worked to combat inequality and encourage students to take action to do the same.

The second edition has been thoroughly revised to include the most current data and to cover recent issues and events like the 2016 elections and the Black Lives Matter movement. It now also includes a brand-new chapter on crime and criminal justice and an expanded discussion of immigration. Concise and accessible, Inequality in America paves the way for students to think critically about the attitudes, behaviors and structures of inequality.


Dilemmas in American Politics

Series Editor: Craig A. Rimmerman, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

If the answers to the problems facing US democracy were easy, politicians would solve them, accept credit, and move on. But certain dilemmas have confronted the American political system continuously. They defy solution; they are endemic to the system. Some can best be described as institutional dilemmas: How can the Congress be both a representative body and a national decision-maker? How can the president communicate with more than 250 million citizens effectively? Why do we have a two-party system when many voters are disappointed with the choices presented to them? Others are policy dilemmas: How do we find compromises on issues that defy compromise, such as abortion policy? How do we incorporate racial and ethnic minorities or immigrant groups into American society, allowing them to reap the benefits of this land without losing their identity? How do we fund health care for our poorest or oldest citizens?

Dilemmas such as these are what propel students toward an interest in the study of US government. Each book in the Dilemmas in American Politics Series addresses a "real world" problem, raising the issues that are of most concern to students. Each is structured to cover the historical and theoretical aspects of the dilemma but also to explore the dilemma from a practical point of view and to speculate about the future. The books are designed as supplements to introductory courses in American politics or as case studies to be used in upper-level courses. The link among them is the desire to make the real issues confronting the political world come alive in students' eyes.


Inequality in America: Race, Poverty, and Fulfilling Democracy's Promise, Second Edition

Stephen M. Caliendo

US Immigration in the Twenty-First Century: Making Americans, Remaking America

Louis DeSipio and Rodolfo O. de la Garza

The Lesbian and Gay Movements: Assimilation or Liberation?, Second Edition

Craig A. Rimmerman

The Democratic Dilemma of American Education: Out of Many, One?

Arnold Shober

Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics, Fourth Edition

Clyde Wilcox and Carin Larson

The New Citizenship: Unconventional Politics, Activism, and Service, Fourth Edition

Craig A. Rimmerman

Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates

Kathleen A. Dolan

Two Parties—or More? The American Party System, Second Edition

John F. Bibby and L. Sandy Maisel

The Role of the Supreme Court in American Politics: The Least Dangerous Branch?

Richard L. Pacelle Jr.

Money Rules: Financing Elections in America

Anthony Gierzynski

The Accidental System: Health Care Policy in America

Michael D. Reagan

The Image-Is-Everything Presidency: Dilemmas in American Leadership

Richard W. Waterman, Robert Wright, and Gilbert St. Clair

The Angry American: How Voter Rage Is Changing the Nation, Second Edition

Susan J. Tolchin

Remote and Controlled: Media Politics in a Cynical Age, Second Edition

Matthew Robert Kerbel

From Rhetoric to Reform? Welfare Policy in American Politics

Anne Marie Cammisa

Payment Due: A Nation in Debt, a Generation in Trouble

Timothy J. Penny and Steven E. Schier

Bucking the Deficit: Economic Policymaking in the United States

G. Calvin Mackenzie and Saranna Thornton


Figure 1.1Challenged Congressional Districts in the 1990s
Figure 2.1Unemployment Rate by Race, 2000–2016
Figure 2.2Poverty Rates by Region and Metro/Nonmetro Status, 2010–2014
Figure 2.3Cycle of Advantage and Disadvantage
Figure 3.1Percent of Homeless Persons by Household Type and Sheltered Status
Figure 4.1Percentage of Students, by Race, in Each Black Density Category, 2011
Figure 4.2Average SAT Scores for the 12th Grade SAT Test-Taking Population, by Subject, Race/Ethnicity, and Sex, 2011
Figure 4.3Dropout Rates of 16- to 24-Year-Olds, by Race/Ethnicity, 1990–2014
Figure 4.4Public High School Graduation Rates, by Race/Ethnicity, 2013–2014
Figure 6.1Projections for Employment, 2008–2018
Figure 7.1Mothers Who Took Multivitamins/Folic Acid in the Month Prior to Pregnancy, by Race/Ethnicity, 2011
Figure 7.2All Infant Deaths (per 1000 Live Births, <1 Year), by Race/Ethnicity of the Mother, 1998–2013
Figure 7.3Infants Put to Sleep on Their Backs (Percent, <8 months), by Race/Ethnicity, 2011
Figure 7.4Age-Adjusted Death Rates for Selected Populations in the US, 2011–2012
Figure 8.1Gender Composition of Highest Paying Occupations
Figure 8.2Poverty Rates for Adult Women, 2015
Figure 8.3Percentage of US Population Holding a Bachelor's Degree
Figure 9.1A Concise History of Black-White Relations in the USA

Feature Boxes

Box 1.1Representing: James Madison
Box 1.2Representing: David Yasskey
Box 2.1Representing: Steve Forbes and the Flat Tax
Box 2.2What Can I Do?: Community Education
Box 2.3Representing: José Serrano and Hal Rogers
Box 3.1Representing: Mel Martinez
Box 3.2Representing: ACORN
Box 3.3Representing: Justin Maxson
Box 3.4What Can I Do?: Graduate Degrees in Public Policy and Urban Planning
Box 4.1Representing: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois
Box 4.2Representing: Chief Justice Earl Warren
Box 4.3Representing: Jonathan Kozol
Box 4.4What Can I Do?: Teach for America
Box 5.1What Can I Do?: Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out
Box 5.2Representing: Bryan Stevenson
Box 5.3What Can I Do?: Together We Bake
Box 6.1Representing: Jack Kemp
Box 6.2What Can I Do?: Helping Others Find Employment
Box 6.3Representing: Isa Noyola
Box 7.1Representing: National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities
Box 7.2What Can I Do?: Food Banks, Soup Kitchens, and Community Work
Box 8.1Representing: Jessica Valenti
Box 8.2What Can I Do?: Blogging
Box 8.3Representing: Phyllis Schlafly
Box 9.1Representing: Justice Clarence Thomas
Box 9.2Representing: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Box 9.3Representing: Ed Blum
Box C.1What Can I Do?: Own Your Privilege


When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best.… They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.1

—Donald J. Trump, June 16, 2015

I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other.2

—Hillary Rodham Clinton, September 26, 2016

[W]hen you're white, you don't know what it's like to be living in a ghetto. You don't know what it's like to be poor. You don't know what it's like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car. And I believe that as a nation in the year 2016, we must be firm in making it clear. We will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system.3

—Bernie Sanders, March 6, 2016

THE MEN WHO DESIGNED THE US SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT IN THE latter part of the eighteenth century present a frustrating paradox to current students of American politics. The Founding Fathers brilliantly devised a structure of government that would last, relatively unchanged, for well over two hundred years (and counting). They were deeply flawed, however, with respect to their inability to reconcile the sweeping promises they articulated in the founding documents with the reality of widespread and brutal inequality that characterized the nation at that time. We celebrate the Founding Fathers by honoring their birthdays, displaying them on our currency, and studying them in our classrooms. But we need to qualify our admiration because their personal lives and public actions did not fully reflect their rhetoric and broader beliefs. In short, American democracy is at once vibrant because of their vision and imperfect because of their blind spots.

If we are interested in improving American democracy—in making "a more perfect union," as then senator Barack Obama said in his popular 2008 speech on race in America4—we are wise to redirect our attention from the individuals who designed the system and occupied key positions in it, to the system itself—the key assertion of this book. We will seek to understand how individual actors (both ordinary citizens and political elites) operate within a system that has largely constrained attempts to rectify what many recognize as injustices.

Inequality in America comes in multiple forms, though this volume focuses primarily on two: poverty and racism. But as we will see, it is impossible to disentangle other types of inequality from issues related to race and economics. Although I do not specifically address inequality related to sexual orientation or physical ability, for example, these factors (and more) are very real and meaningful challenges that affect millions of Americans on a daily basis. While I recognize the interaction among these forces at certain points and address gender in Chapter 8, I mostly focus on the distinct and interrelated elements of race and poverty and the intricacies of the legacy of inequality that has come to characterize American government and politics in its first two centuries.

Poverty and the Myth of Meritocracy

On the surface, understanding poverty appears simple: some have the financial resources they need, and some do not. If we want to understand how one of the wealthiest nations in the world can also be home to so much poverty, however, we need to examine the assumptions that accompany the realities of statistics about poverty. These assumptions help explain why ordinary Americans (the vast majority of whom are not wealthy) are willing to tolerate the existence of widespread income and wealth inequality, as well as abject poverty.

In August 2011, broadcaster Tavis Smiley and scholar Cornel West launched an eighteen-city "poverty tour" to call attention to these issues. The tour culminated in the publication of a book, The Rich and the Rest of Us,5 in which the authors lay out a vision for understanding poverty in a more complete (and complicated) way. Subtitled "A Poverty Manifesto," their book serves as a call to action. They ask Americans to eschew the "lies about poverty that America can no longer afford" (e.g., that poverty is a character flaw, that minorities receive the bulk of government entitlements, and that poverty is uniquely urban),6 and they advocate for public policies that are designed to lead to economic justice. Their work is powerful because it taps into Americans' shared core values, such as egalitarianism and justice. But other core values, such as individualism, are harder to reconcile with policies that promote economic redistribution. Together, we will explore the spaces where there is commonality and the areas where there is friction between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans on issues relating to racial and economic inequality.

Residing at the core of these differences is the notion of meritocracy, the belief that those who have success earned it while those who do not, did not.7 Few would deny that Americans start out life with an unequal chance of financial success. But understanding how injustice is perpetuated requires an understanding of how inequality at birth often manifests in a lifetime of advantage or disadvantage.

In November 2010, Meghan McCain,8 a noted blogger and daughter of longtime US senator (and 2008 Republican nominee for president) John McCain, used her space on The Daily Beast blog to criticize former Alaska governor (and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee) Sarah Palin for calling the Bush family "blue bloods" (a reference to their upper-class status). McCain, who considers herself a Republican, charged that such divisiveness within the party was counterproductive. But her response illustrates some core assumptions that most Americans hold about social class in the United States. In her blog entry, McCain ignores institutional factors that constrain poor Americans' chances of becoming blue bloods while enabling the children of wealthy Americans to follow in their parents' footsteps. She writes:

I actually had to Google what the meaning of "blue bloods" was, although I could surmise that it was some kind of knock against education and coming from a family of some success. Yes, in essence that is what this statement meant. Families that work hard and achieve a long line of successful people are "blue bloods" and thus, [Palin] implied the opinions of said people are jaded and elitist, even if that family lineage has a long history of public service and leadership within [the] Republican Party.

As McCain admits later in the piece, she reacted to Palin's accusation personally because she grew up with tremendous privilege. Rather than recognizing that her privilege was unearned (it was a function of her parents' success, not her own work), she dismisses Palin's comment as inappropriate because "blue bloods" is a derogatory term for "families that work hard and achieve a long line of successful people." Here McCain invokes the myth of meritocracy; she believes that hard work leads to economic success (often through education), and she incorrectly (and perhaps unintentionally) suggests that each generation starts from scratch in its achievements.9 It is certainly possible that members of each generation of a privileged family work hard in their own right, but the lack of recognition of the head start that subsequent generations have (compared to those who begin life in poverty) is startling. Further, it reflects our collective socialization that urges us to accept the legitimacy of the American political and economic systems. We are taught to believe that those who are financially successful (as well as those who have access to excellent educational institutions) are fully deserving of that privilege, whereas those who are not must have acted badly at some point and, therefore, deserve their poverty. As we will see, however, such a generalization is unfair and harmful because it obscures systemic factors that contribute to poverty (and wealth) so as to rectify injustice.

This dynamic was very clearly at work in the 2016 presidential campaign, as millions of poor, primarily white, voters from rural areas of the country put their trust in billionaire real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump. On the surface, it should seem curious that millions of working-class Americans would throw their support behind a person who has never struggled economically a day in his life. There are no easy explanations, but one element is that Mr. Trump represented for millions of Americans a pushback against the cultural elite. That is, even though he is wealthy, he spoke to workers, has created jobs for workers, and openly criticized political correctness and other aspects of a cosmopolitan America that many find offensive.10 His opponent, Hillary Clinton, embodied that elite class; though she was raised of modest means in a Chicago suburb, most of her adult life was spent in the public sphere. By the time she ran for president, she epitomized "establishment" politics, and the alternative was alluring. As we will discover in the following pages, social class is more than income or wealth. Although it is rooted in economic stability, class encompasses a set of norms that involve many aspects of everyday life, from clothing to love to the value of education, and even the way we use and appreciate humor.11 Wealthy as he is, rural, white Americans12 found in Donald Trump a fellow American who shared their values and understood their struggles. He promised to help reestablish the American middle class, and they were willing to give him a chance.

Despite our national folklore, America does indeed have a class system that affects individuals' ability to achieve the American Dream. While it is not an officially designated system with titles (such as in Great Britain)13 or a rigid caste system (such as in India),14 Americans clearly recognize differences based on economic circumstances and customs that serve to organize society. Class structure in the United States is disproportionately (though not solely) based on wealth.15 For that reason, we will address the concept of poverty as opposed to the broader concept of class. Economic and racial inequality will be our primary focus; we will explore the reasons that they exist and the myriad paths to reduce such inequality.

Irrespective of class designations—most Americans believe themselves to be in the middle class,16 so such labels may carry little useful meaning—we will see that the data characterizing the distribution of income and wealth in the United States clearly reveal a large gap between the rich and the poor. That gap has been growing rapidly over the past thirty years, and, as we will see in Chapter 2, the number of Americans who reside in the middle is shrinking.

This notion of class differences came into sharp focus late in the summer of 2011 when the Occupy Wall Street (OWS or Occupy) movement was born with the launch of a website (OccupyWallStreet.org17) and a social media campaign, calling attention to the historically high and expanding degree of economic inequality in the United States. Protests began in Lower Manhattan on September 17, 2011, and rallies and demonstrations quickly spread to other cities in the United States and around the globe. The Occupy slogan, "We Are the 99 Percent," refers to the dramatic accumulation of wealth by the top 1 percent of Americans (see Chapter 2).

The mantle was carried even more visibly in the 2016 presidential election, as US senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ran a strong campaign for the Democratic nomination rooted in the call to rectify economic inequality. Both Occupy and the Sanders campaign were successful in calling attention to an issue that was largely ignored by the media (and thus most of the American public) for nearly fifty years. As a result of Occupy, the 2012 presidential candidates were forced to address the issue, and America became positioned for a frank discussion about whether such trends are consistent with our fundamental shared values. Energized by the relative success of the Sanders campaign (he lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton, but not before winning twenty-one states and Puerto Rico18), young Americans in particular appear eager to continue the discussion and find unique ways to create meaningful change to bring about greater economic justice.

Given our history, we cannot consider these economic factors without also considering race. Race and poverty are not interchangeable demographic markers in the United States: there are wealthy people of color, and there are poor whites. However, poverty is disproportionately African American and Hispanic/Latino* in America, and issues that uniquely face persons of color are often present irrespective of economic success.

Racial and Economic Inequality Through the Lens of Political Science

The first half of the twenty-first century marks a critical period in the racial history of the United States. By many projections, persons who identify as white19 will become a numerical minority in the next few decades.20 Barack Obama's election to the presidency in 2008 marked a milestone that just a generation earlier many Americans never expected they would see. Yet the racial tension that surfaced in the shadow of that election, including during his reelection campaign in 2012,21 increased awareness of police brutality against African American men (which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement22) and led to Donald Trump's campaign in 2016,23 serving as a sober reminder that America's deep racial divisions persist.

In the days after the 2008 presidential election, the term postracial entered the public sphere in a meaningful way. With an image of civil rights legend Jesse Jackson weeping openly in Chicago's Grant Park while the newly elected president gave his acceptance speech as a cultural backdrop, many Americans—white Americans in particular—believed that the history of racial oppression had come to a dramatic close. After all, the most powerful person in the nation was African American. Those who had been skeptical of racism's legacy in the first place believed that the event was simply a bright marker of what they had been saying for decades—racism ended in the 1960s when Jim Crow segregation was abolished legally. On the other hand, those who recognized that racism was more than racial animosity took comfort in the symbolism, if only momentarily.

The belief that America is characterized by a postracial identity dramatically cuts against the lived experiences of generations of persons of color in America. America's poorest and most economically vulnerable citizens are still distinctly black (African American) and brown (Latino and Hispanic). Further, inequality between middle- and upper-class whites and those who hover near the poverty line has increased dramatically in the past generation, suggesting the existence of "two Americas"24 with little evidence of inequality being reversed in the near future. This book documents that inequality through the lens of political science. We will examine racial and economic inequality with particular attention to how public policy and power dynamics in America are influenced by—and perpetuate—disparities in income and wealth, housing, education, crime, immigration, employment opportunities, and health. The reasons for this inequality are complicated, but answers on the political left and right often center on "common sense" or other simplistic frameworks. Potential solutions, however, require a sophisticated understanding of the systems and institutional constraints that set parameters for the attitudes and behaviors of the mass public and political elites alike. In the following chapters, we will explore this complexity with an eye to the achievement of increased equality.

Striving for more equality is not a value-neutral proposition. Equality is a core value for Americans, but that does not mean we are unified with respect to what it means or how to achieve it. In considering this dynamic, it is helpful to think about the difference between objectivity and neutrality.

Scholars and journalists both strive for objectivity—the conscious effort to be attentive to one's biases when analyzing a situation. But in many ways, this goal can never be fully realized. Striving toward neutrality, however, particularly with respect to inequality, is undesirable. Few of us would approach this book with the attitude "Equality—I can take it or leave it." To the contrary, this subject tends to inflame passions. Many Americans have risked and indeed have given their lives in the name of social justice. The friction, as we will see, most often arises when we consider what equality looks like and, if we decide that we have fallen short of achieving it, how to remedy that failure.


  • "Uncommonly balanced and fully accessible."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A well-researched and insightful perspective on economic inequality and its conflict with American ideals."—Booklist
  • "A welcome addition to American politics classes. Caliendo's textbook covers an array of important topics within the broad field of American income inequality. . . . In addition to providing foundational definitions, Caliendo's textbook offers an excellent introduction to the drivers of income inequality, with a particular focus on racial income inequality."—Political Science Quarterly
  • "Inequality in America introduces students to otherwise somewhat closed scholarly debates on inequality and its pertinent issues. The richly textured coverage of vital public policy questions related to inequality and its data-driven foundation are the strengths of the book. Students will find the format of the book appealing. Interesting features such as the "Representing" sections of each chapter help hone the respective chapters' themes and coverage. Moreover, the "What Can I do?" section in each chapter offers very useful and empowering strategies for students to take up as they try to negotiate the many challenges that confront their generation."—James Taylor, University of San Francisco
  • "Inequality in America is an important addition to an introductory course in American government. It is clearly written and accessible to students, while thoughtfully addressing the complex institutionalization of inequality, and its effects, in the United States. Though there are texts that address racial politics more generally, this book is unique in its specific focus on the systemic nature of inequality and its focus on the intersections of race, poverty, and gender."—Catherine Paden, Simmons College
  • "Inequality in America is a thorough and comprehensive review of the state of race- and socioeconomic-status-based inequality from a multidisciplinary perspective. The author includes a great mix of political science, history, economics, and sociology. I highly recommend this book for anyone teaching an undergraduate course on U.S. inequality."—S. Michael Gaddis, The Pennsylvania State University

On Sale
Jul 18, 2017
Page Count
304 pages

Stephen M. Caliendo

About the Author

Stephen M. Caliendo is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Political Science at North Central College. He is co-author of Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns. He is also the co-director of The Project on Race in Political Communication (

Learn more about this author