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U.S. Income Inequality Higher Than Roman Empire's Levels: Study

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Many tout the U.S. as the Roman empire of the modern world. But as it turns out, that comparison may not be all good.

Income inequality in America is at levels even higher than those in ancient Rome, according to a recent study from two historians, Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen, cited by Per Square Mile. After analyzing papyri ledgers, biblical passages and other previous scholarly estimates, the researchers found that the top one percent of earners in Ancient Rome controlled 16 percent of the society's wealth. By comparison, the top one percent of American earners control 40 percent of the country's wealth, according to Vanity Fair. (h/t ThinkProgress)

The findings add to the growing chorus of studies and criticisms indicating that the wealth gap is hitting truly remarkable levels. The top one percent saw their incomes rise by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office, while the bottom fifth of earners only saw their incomes grow by 20 percent during that same period.

In addition, the total net worth of the bottom 60 percent of Americans is less than that of the Forbes 400 richest Americans. Perhaps even more shocking, the six heirs to the retail giant Walmart had the same net worth in 2007 as the bottom 30 percent of Americans. And the phenomenon isn't just limited to the U.S. -- income inequality is on the rise in most of the world's major economies, according to the Organisation of Economic Development and Cooperation.

The high levels of income inequality may help explain why both Rome and America wield so much power. Large wealth gaps actually helped early societies spread, according to an October study. That's because unequal societies crowded out more egalitarian populations, the study found.

Still, the income gap may hurt the U.S. in other ways. A September report from the International Monetary Fund found that greater income equality positively correlates with stronger economic growth.

Not only that, but it's also unpopular; nearly three-quarters of the respondents to an October poll from The Hill said they think income inequality is a problem for the United States. In addition, it's been one of the main rallying cries of Occupy Wall Street.

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