Income and Culture


The considerable growth in wealth of top earners over the last generation — with one study estimating that after-tax income for the top 1% of earners increased 275% between 1979 and 2007, compared to just an 18% bump for the bottom quintile — and the media surrounding the Occupy protests mean that there is increased focus on income inequality.

However, a provocative piece – published far earlier this year — maintains that the divide is not just income, but cultural. As its author argues:

We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.

Author Charles Murray, no stranger to controversy, believes the divide is far greater than wealth.  We are becoming a society where it is more than money that separates us, he argues, it is family structure, educational level, and choice of worship.  Murray finds that the US is dominated by “SuperZIPs” — zip codes where the 1% congregate, and which arguably encompass an entirely different culture than the rest of the country.

If one were to overlay a map of investor and entrepreneurial activity with the SuperZIPs, the correlation is likely to be awfully high. Murray’s advice for those people living in SuperZIPS:

Changing life in the SuperZIPs requires that members of the new upper class rethink their priorities. Here are some propositions that might guide them: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting. Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile. America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.

Agree or not with his conclusions (and we take neither side), it’s a provocative and engaging essay.