What Is Structural Inequality?

How Structural Inequality Stifles the American Dream

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Structural inequality is a system of privilege created by institutions within an economy. These institutions include the law, business practices, and government policies. They also include education, health care, and the media. They are powerful socializing agents that tell us what we can achieve within society.

Inequality is structural when policies keep some groups of people from obtaining the resources to better their lives. They do not have a chance to pursue their idea of happiness. Structural inequality clouds this vision and limits economic growth for the whole society.

What Is Structural Inequality?

Structural inequality differs from individual forms of inequality. That's where racism and sexism are exhibited by individual behavior. Many people think that all inequality is due to personal biases that can be overcome individually. They believe that inequality would disappear if people "just stood up for themselves," or if others stopped oppressing them.

Structural inequality occurs even in a free market economy because of the laws and policies that form it. Those laws regulate government contracts, bankruptcy, and property ownership. They create advantages for some and disadvantages for others. When the laws work against specific groups, inequality becomes part of the structure of the market.

How Structural Inequality Impacts Income

Structural inequality seems to be worsening. Between 1979 and 2007, after-tax income increased by 275% for the most affluent 1% of households. It rose by 65% for the top fifth. For the bottom fifth, it only increased by 18%, even adding all income from Social Security, welfare, and other government payments.

During that time, the most affluent 1% increased their share of total income by 10%. Everyone else saw their share shrink by 1% to 2%. As a result, economic mobility worsened.

The 2008 financial crisis saw the rich get richer. In 2012, the top 10% of earners took home 50% of all income. That's the highest percentage in the last 100 years, according to a study by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty.

The chart below illustrates the discrepancies in household incomes by percentile from 1963 through 2019.

Types of Structural Inequality

There are six major forms of structural inequality:

1. Education

Students in low-income neighborhoods often receive an education that is inferior to that of students in wealthier areas. Research has found that this accounts for 37% of the reason for lower math scores.

Within schools, "tracking" guides students toward different careers. Many claim that this guides girls, women, and those in under-represented groups toward less lucrative jobs. Others argue that tracking is needed to give gifted children the best preparation to excel.

Structural inequality exists where poor children must attend public schools while rich children can attend private schools. Before the 1950s, school segregation was allowed by federal law. During that time, many girls were guided toward home economics rather than math, for example.

2. Housing

Municipal leaders can create systemic segregation through zoning. They zone for amenities like green space and large lots in wealthy White areas. They then allow apartment complexes and halfway houses in lower-income areas. Over time, these decisions create neighborhoods on the "wrong side of the tracks."

Under the New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration created loan programs to allow more Americans to buy homes. But the government redlined areas populated by communities of color. It allowed banks to avoid lending in entire neighborhoods. From 1934 to 1962, 98% of home loans went to White families.

Between 2004 and 2009, Wells Fargo steered 30,000 Black and Latinx borrowers into subprime mortgages. It gave prime loans to White borrowers with similar credit profiles. Wells Fargo was ordered to compensate the marginalized borrowers for the extra costs incurred by higher interest rates and fees.

3. Health Care

Healthcare inequality is correlated with income inequality. Those with good jobs have the best access to health care. America has a healthcare system that relies on private health insurance.

Leading up to the launch of the Affordable Care Act, almost 44 million Americans lacked health insurance. By 2017, that number dropped to about 27 million. And while the numbers have declined, there are still millions of people without health insurance.

4. Race

Racial structural inequality has its roots in U.S. slavery. That system legally allowed Black Americans to be treated as non-human property. Even though slavery was outlawed in 1865, Jim Crow laws enforced segregation in the South until 1964.

The racial housing gap still exists. Data from the 2010 Census confirmed that the racial disparity in neighborhoods persists. A 2010 study found that non-White families with incomes above $75,000 are more likely to live in poor communities than White families with incomes below $40,000. Poor neighborhoods are less safe, and the schools are of a lower quality than those in affluent areas.

As a result, Black people in upper-income families are more likely to lose their status than White people. White children whose parents are in the top fifth of the income distribution have a 41.1% chance of staying there as adults, but for Black children, it's only 18%.

5. Gender

Research shows that there are many structural gender biases in the workplace. For example, studies have found that managers give women fewer challenging roles and less training compared with men. Female managers aren't given as many high-level responsibilities needed for promotions. Men are more likely to be given leadership roles in both male-dominated fields and female-dominated fields.

6. Media

In Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court gave corporations the same rights as people. It protected corporate campaign contributions as a form of free speech. This decision allowed wealthy business owners greater access than poorer individuals to political advertising.

How Structural Inequality Affects You

If you are in an under-represented group or a woman, you already know how structural inequality affects you. As part of an under-represented group, you may have been guided to certain neighborhoods by your bank.

As a woman, you may have found out that your male coworkers had higher salaries doing the same jobs as you, even though you had more experience. Or maybe you were denied a promotion or job opportunity because the hiring manager believed that women aren't good at that job.

Even if you haven't experienced structural inequality personally, you have been adversely affected.

If you were part of a company that was not diverse, it may have been less profitable. This is because diversity drives profitability in three ways:

  • A diverse workforce builds trust in your brand with a diverse target market.
  • Valuing diversity cuts costs by reducing turnover. It gives the company the freedom to go after the most talented people, regardless of differences.
  • A diverse product-development team can create new products that accurately target niche markets.

Diversity is an often-overlooked reason for Silicon Valley's success. The Valley attracts top engineers from around the world. Between 1995 and 2005, 43.9% of Silicon Valley startups reported that at least one of their key founders was foreign-born.

The United States' ranking in education is falling. For example, U.S. students' math skills have remained stagnant since at least the early 2000s. They are falling behind those of many other countries, such as Japan, Poland, and Ireland, which have greatly improved. U.S. test scores are now below the global average. That hurts America's comparative advantage in the global marketplace and lowers economic output.

The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that the U.S. economy loses $329 billion per year as a result of the lost annual income of the 1.2 million high-school students who drop out without receiving a diploma.

What Can We Do About Structural Inequality?

The solution to structural inequality must address the structure that created it. For example, it's not enough to help an individual move from one town to another. The zoning that created both communities must be changed. Both towns must be zoned for large land lots and apartment complexes as well as green spaces and halfway houses.

The Community Reinvestment Act didn't do that. As a result, it was just a half-measure. The law helped deserving people buy homes in redlined neighborhoods, but it didn't address the zoning that had created those neighborhoods.

If society has the resources, it could also include universal health care and equity in education. This investment in human capital would bring everyone up to a basic standard. It may be better than increasing welfare benefits, providing a universal basic income, or raising the minimum wage. Studies show that cities that have done so have reduced poverty and reliance on welfare.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is an example of structural inequality?

Examples of structural inequality would include disparities in how people of different races are portrayed in movies. When movies repeatedly portray people of color as criminals, that is an example of structural inequality.

How is structural inequality different from systematic inequality?

Systemic inequality refers to a system that has perpetuated inequalities. These systems are established with inequalities embedded in the principles or practices, so people acting within the system may perpetuate inequalities unintentionally.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Michigan State University. "Schools Worsen Inequality, Especially in Math Instruction."

  4. PBS. "The Growth of the Suburbs - and the Racial Wealth Gap."

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  10. Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. "Then and Now: America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part VII."

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  12. Wiley Online Library. "The Effects of Minimum Wages on Food Stamp Enrollment and Expenditures."

  13. National Museum of African American History & Culture. "Being Antiracist."

  14. USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. "How To Explain Structural, Institutional, and Systemic Racism."

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