The rich and the rest - American inequality is a tale of two countries

October 13, 2012

THE HAMPTONS, A string of small towns on the south shore of Long Island, have long been a playground for America’s affluent. Nowadays the merely rich are being crimped by the ultra-wealthy. In August it can cost $400,000 to rent a fancy house there. The din of helicopters and private jets is omnipresent. The “Quiet Skies Coalition”, formed by a group of angry residents, protests against the noise, particularly of one billionaire’s military-size Chinook. “You can’t even play tennis,” moans an old-timer who stays near the East Hampton airport. “It’s like the third world war with GIV and GV jets.”

Thirty years ago, Loudoun County, just outside Washington, DC, in Northern Virginia, was a rural backwater with a rich history. During the war of 1812 federal documents were kept safe there from the English. Today it is the wealthiest county in America. Rolling pastures have given way to technology firms, swathes of companies that thrive on government contracts and pristine neighbourhoods with large houses. The average household income, at over $130,000, is twice the national level. The county also marks the western tip of the biggest cluster of affluence in the country. Between Loudoun County and north-west Washington, DC, there are over 800,000 people in exclusive postcodes that are home to the best-educated and wealthiest 5% of the population, dubbed “superzips” by Charles Murray, a libertarian social scientist.


And even the most recent studies of social mobility look at the earnings of people who were children over two decades ago. Since disparities in income, education and social behaviour now strongly reinforce each other, future mobility might be a lot lower still. A study by Sean Reardon of Stanford University suggests that the gap in standardised test scores between schoolchildren from high- and low-income families is roughly 30-40% bigger today than it was 25 years ago. Bob Putnam, of Harvard University, puts it starkly. Put away the rear-view mirror and look at future social mobility, he says, and “we’re about to go over a cliff.”