Numbers are one way to understand America’s growing inequality — countless charts and graphs show how the richest and poorest Americans’ incomes are diverging — but the concept is easier to understand via personal stories. Author Anand Giridharadas used the story of a convenience store robber to explain this in a recent TED talk.
Giridharadas’s point is particularly salient now, as Robert Putnam’s book about the growing fissure between upper- and lower-class America is a hot topic in political circles. Toward the end of his talk (around the 16-minute mark), he hammers home the point that there are two Americas, and that many people who reside firmly in the more privileged version don’t even realize it.
“Don’t console yourself that you are the 99 percent,” he says. “If you live near a Whole Foods; if no one in your family serves in the military; if you are paid by the year, not the hour; if most people you know finished college; if no one you know uses meth; if you married once and remain married; if you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record — if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem.”
Harsh as that sounds, Giridharadas gets at an important point that Putnam also echoed in a recent interview with Vox: as the highest and lowest incomes in the US move further apart, well-off and low-income Americans also know less and less about each other and what it truly means to be from another social class. Indeed, only 1 percent of Americans consider themselves upper-class. As economic segregation grows, it plays a part in keeping people from climbing up the social ladder.