08/01/2013 10:42 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

Data Shows Depth of U.S. Inequality


Evidence continues to pour in that the United States, much-ballyhooed as a place of equal opportunity, is anything but. Too bad next to no one in Washington seems to much notice anymore.

The latest data to catch my eye is a nifty New York Times graphic published Tuesday titled "Measuring Us Against the World." In building it, the Times concluded:

The United States is one of the richest nations on earth, but on a number of social and economic measures, it is more typical of a developing country. Compared with other advanced nations, it ranks consistently among the worst performers in matters of economic equality and child welfare.

How bad? The U.S. ranks in the bottom quarter in five categories compared to its 19 "nearest peers" in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, The Times reports. These include not only long-time contemporaries such as Great Britain, Germany, France and Canada, but also economically struggling countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal and still modernizing ones such as Mexico and Turkey.

Here are the categories and the U.S. rank, as reported:

  • Percentage of children living in single-parent homes -- at 25.8 percent, the U.S. ranks last of 20, just just behind Estonia.
  • Childhood poverty -- the U.S. ranks fourth worst of 20, a tad ahead of Mexico but well behind Greece.
  • Infant mortality -- the U.S. ranks fourth worst of 20, just behind Poland.
  • Income inequality -- the U.S. ranks fifth worst of 20, just behind Spain.
  • Something called "literacy inequality" -- the U.S. ranks fifth worst of 20.

To put this in perspective, if the United States were a school, the school board would be giving it failing grades and demanding its teachers do something about its performance. But America's school board, the U.S. Congress, is rapidly becoming a millionaires' club disassociated from the people it is supposed to represent. Its members seem to spend whatever little time they do work reacting to Republican efforts to dismantle the government rather than responding to the real needs of the people.

Sadly, many of these people -- that's us -- seem hellbent on clamoring against their best interests (witness the obsession to stop Obamacare). Which leaves all of us, but particularly the working poor and unemployed poorer, adrift in a country with lots of organization but next to no anchor. (Oh, President Obama has tried, but these days even he seems to be going through the motions.)

Perhaps all this explains why so many poor Americans spend millions of dollars each year on lottery tickets that are pretty much sure losers. The lottery, they may reason, is one place in which they have an equal -- if infinitesimal -- chance of coming out ahead.

Somehow I don't think that's what the Land of Opportunity was supposed to stand for.