1st Seminars at Steamboat event of summer to tackle inequality

Michael Schrantz
Charles Murray

— The first Seminars at Steamboat event of the summer is supposed to be about income inequality, but the discussion Thursday night between Charles Murray and Timothy Smeeding might center more on whether or not the the rising disparity of incomes in the U.S. is the real threat to society.

“The main difference, I think, is I’m not worried about income inequality per se,” said Murray, a political scientist and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “But I’m very worried about the cultural inequality.”

In Thursday’s format, each will have 10 minutes to present their case before the discussion starts, and Murray said he’ll be using his time to introduce the concepts he wrote about in his 2012 book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010,” which examines the cultural differences between upper class and poor whites.

A new elite culture has developed, Murray said, where more educated and affluent people differ drastically from the rest of America in their habits, how they raise their kids and even where they live.

More than 1 million people live around Washington, D.C., in contiguous zip codes among the most wealthy in the nation, Murray said. “It’s like a bubble.”

There also has been a change in the working class, he said, and a cleavage has developed between the upper and lower class cultures.

“I don’t have a government policy to fix things,” Murray said.

“I think there has to be a kind of cultural reawakening in U.S. in which the government will have little to do with,” he said. “Whether the elites themselves take the initiative to close some of these cultural gaps, the odds of that happening are not very high.”

But, Smeeding said, what’s driving this thing called culture?

Smeeding is an economist with the University of Wisconsin–Madison and director of the Institute for Research and Poverty.

Income inequality is at very high levels, he said, but the important thing is why we are seeing it worsen.

Murray is right in his book, Smeeding said, that having children out of wedlock can add to inequality, but a lack of jobs contributes to men not being marriageable.

In Smeeding’s view, the economic changes driving income inequality interact with family changes.

There are things the government can do to reduce teen pregnancies, employ more men and make them marriageable and increase opportunities for children through items such as early-childhood education, Smeeding said, providing more upward mobility for the next generation.

“Because of inequality, the rungs of the ladder — the difference between the top and the bottom — has become much bigger,” he said. “The consequences of being stuck at bottom or surviving at the top are much greater.”

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206, email or follow him on Twitter @MLSchrantz

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