BIDDEFORD – Inequality has consequences. In the United States, the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than in most other developed democracies, and it is getting wider, both before and after taxes. As well, the United States does less than most other democracies to redistribute income from the rich to the poor.

A study that appeared in Harvard Magazine July/August 2008, titled “Inequality America,” attempts to test inequality’s effects on society and delivers findings that command both sides’ attention.

The study shows evidence that living in a society with wide disparities in health, in wealth, in education is worse for all the society’s members, even the well-off.

Research indicates that high inequality reverberates through societies in multiple levels, correlating with, if not causing, more crime, less happiness, poorer mental and physical health, less racial harmony, and less civic and political participation.

Tax policy and social welfare programs take on importance far beyond how much income people hold on to. The level of inequality we allow represents our answer to a very important question: What kind of a society do we want to live in?

Following are some findings taken from this study.

Income inequality has been rising since the late 1970s, and now is at a level not seen since the Gilded Age — roughly 1870 to 1900 — a period in history defined by the contrast between the super-rich and the squalor of the poor.

The recent increase in inequality reflects a migration of money upward as salaries ballooned at the top.

In 1965, the average salary for a CEO of a major U.S. company was 25 times the salary of the average worker. Today, the average CEO’s pay is more than 250 times the average worker’s.

At the same time, the government is doing less to redistribute income than it has in times past.

The current top marginal tax, 35 percent, is not the lowest it ever has been (there was no federal income tax at all until 1913), but it is far lower than the 91 percent levied on top earners from 1951 to 1963.

Increasing income inquality goes hand in hand with decreased social capital. A concept akin to community involvement, social capital incorporates, among other things, social relationships, trust, reciprocity among friends and neighbors, and civic engagement.

This situation can lead to an extreme, leaving entire classes of people disadvantaged and excluded — akin to a caste society.

It is accepted wisdom that social ties affect health, and social disconnectedness may go beyond being less happy or even less healthy.

Great gaps between rich and poor may hurt democracy and rule of law if elites prefer elected officials who will protect their interests.

This doesn’t seem possible in a democracy such as the United States, where each citizen’s vote carries the same weight regardless of income. In fact, given the shape of the income distribution, it seems that Americans would elect leaders whose policies favor the poor and middle class.

Instead, though, nations and states with high inequality levels tend to favor policies that allow the affluent to hang on to their money.

Previous research has shown that voter turnout is low, particularly at the low end of the income spectrum, in societies with high inequality.

Again, this is counterintuitive. In unequal places, poor people unhappy with government policies might be expected to turn out en masse to vote, but instead they stay home.

Inequality stunts upward mobility. The American poor seem to be much more “trapped” than their European counterparts. This is a puzzle, given the American society’s emphasis on fairness and openness.

Professors Claudia Golein and Lawrence Katz detect an explanation — the increasing cost of college tuition.

Golein and Katz say there is a higher demand for workers with college and technical degrees. As technology continues to advance, if Americans do not break down the barriers to higher education, the authors foresee an even more acute shortage of highly trained workers and a further increase in inequality.

Elizabeth Gudrais, associate editor of Harvard Magazine and author of this article, invited me to share this information. The entire article text is available on the Harvard Magazine website. 

Rachel Dunn is a resident of Biddeford.