Jacob Hacker is the Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, where he focuses on healthcare reform, social welfare, and economic opportunity. His recent books, co-authored with Paul Pierson, are Winner-Take-All Politics and American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper. These books illustrate the myriad ways in which policy reflects the interests of those with the money to influence it. A defender of the working and middle classes, Professor Hacker devotes his career to leveling the playing field by equalizing the distribution of power and opportunity across classes.

Former U.S. Representative Barney Frank served as chair of the House Financial Services Committee, which supported numerous bills to protect homeowners from foreclosure during the 2008 housing crash. His landmark achievements include the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, commonly referred to as Dodd-Frank, which was signed into law in 2010 and brought about the most significant changes to financial regulation in the United States since the Great Depression. Its far-reaching consequences extend to almost all of the nation’s financial services industries. Representative Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, has been a staunch advocate for LGBTQ rights, civil rights, and safe, legal abortion.

Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. Professor Putnam is most recognized for his bestseller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. His latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, investigates growing income inequality, shrinking social mobility, and diminished educational opportunities for low-income Americans.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist most famous for her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich went undercover as a low-wage worker and documented the unseen struggles faced by the working poor after the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, otherwise known as welfare reform. She is the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which promotes cutting-edge journalism about poverty. Ehrenreich is also an activist who has fought for healthcare, women’s rights, and peace.

Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a resident faculty member of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Professor Ferguson is a conservative economic historian, international bestselling author, and political commentator known for his analyses of world marketplaces.

Paul Krugman (right), Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is also a New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize laureate. The Washington Monthly dubbed him “the most important political columnist in America.” Professor Krugman is the author or editor of over 20 books and more than 200 professional journal articles, many of them on international trade and finance.

Mike Huckabee (left), a former governor of Arkansas and an influential right-wing commentator, is also a two-time Republican candidate for president. An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Huckabee is a favorite of the religious right and an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay rights.

Katherine Newman is Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has served on the faculties of Princeton University, Harvard University, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Newman is the author of many books on the psychology, sociology, and history of poverty and economic mobility.


Fast Facts about Income Inequality and Social Mobility:

  • Income inequality in the U.S. is the highest it has been since 1928. In 1982, the top 1% of earners in America received 10.8% of all pretax income, and the bottom 90% received 64.7%; in 2012, the top 1% received 22.5% and the bottom 90% received only 49.6%.[i]
  • Despite economic progress for African Americans, the income gap between Blacks and whites has persisted with Blacks making only 59% of the median income of white Americans (up only 4% from 55% in 1967).[ii]
  • According to a Pew Research Center study of public trust in the federal government, trust fell to a historic low of 17% in 2008 following the bank bailout. Most Americans (62%) say they feel frustrated with the federal government, while another 19% say they are angry. Most Americans expressing dissatisfaction and distrust are conservative or from Republican-oriented groups that oppose “big government.”[iii]
  • Approximately three-quarters of the people who benefit from welfare programs come from families that are headed by a worker.[iv]
  • The federal government pays more than $150 billion a year on four key anti-poverty programs: Medicaid, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the earned-income tax credit.[v]


Discussion Questions about Income Inequality and Social Mobility:

  1. Does Barney Frank’s somewhat facetious claim that being gay is more socially acceptable today than being a member of Congress ring true? What has shaped the public’s perception of government as the source of our problems and how can the mistrust of big government be resolved?
  2. Robert Putnam theorizes that today’s new Gilded Age results from a lack of social interconnectedness. How can we invent new ways of connecting with our neighbors across class lines in our hyperindividualized Internet age?
  3. Barbara Ehrenreich describes how people in poverty are demonized by society and characterized as lazy and promiscuous addicts with criminal tendencies. If she is right in claiming that this characterization stems from affluent people’s need to justify their own wealth and social standing, how might we transform the perception of what it means to live in poverty in the U.S. today?
  4. Paul Krugman says the European welfare state allows Europeans to live the American Dream, while Americans cannot. If the United States is the land of opportunity where anyone can succeed, why is it one of the least upwardly mobile countries in the advanced world?
  5. Mike Huckabee says poverty used to be a “temporary position” in life, but that government programs designed to eliminate poverty are actually trapping people in poverty. Do you agree that if government “gets out of the way,” people will have greater opportunity to succeed on their own?
  6. Niall Ferguson says conservatives need to come up with an agenda that is not just about cutting taxes and entitlements, but that addresses the lack of social mobility. What might a conservative agenda to improve social mobility look like?


[i] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/07/5-facts-about-economic-inequality/ http://eml.berkeley.edu//~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf

[ii] http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/22/kings-dream-remains-an-elusive-goal-many-americans-see-racial-disparities/4/#chapter-3-demographic-economic-data-by-race

[iii] http://www.people-press.org/2014/11/13/public-trust-in-government/

[iv] http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/the-high-public-cost-of-low-wages/

[v] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/13/business/economy/working-but-needing-public-assistance-anyway.html?_r=0