September/October 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 7

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Inequality in the United States:  A Primer

Sharon Jank and Lindsay Owens, Stanford University

In the fall of 2011, Occupy Wall Street ignited a nationwide conversation about economic and social inequality.  The ensuing demand—by the media and many others—for clear and informative facts and figures on inequality was insatiable. It quickly became apparent, however, that while there is certainly no shortage of top-quality research on inequality, there was no easy way to find it. There is no clearinghouse for research on inequality. Instead, much of the data and research is either buried in technical detail or dispersed across dozens of subfields (often both).

Some of the starkest and most compelling findings in social science, such as the extraordinary rise in the ratio of CEO to average worker pay in the last 50 years, to name just one, are virtually unknown to the public. Humbled by this predicament, as well as the limits to our own knowledge of work on inequality outside of our subfields, we began to discuss how to remedy this problem. 

In an effort to seek data beyond known sociological research, we decided to embark on an ambitious collaboration with fellow social science graduate students from universities across the nation to assemble, “translate,” and widely disseminate some of the latest and most influential social science research on inequality. The data come from the fields of economics, political science, policy schools, education schools, and various think tanks (Pew, Brookings, etc.).

The response from our collaborators was enthusiastic and Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality quickly signed on and agreed to host the final product at Within a matter of months, we had assembled a “chartbook” of 90 figures across 14 subfields of inequality from debt to employment, education to health, and many topics in between. Each figure included a brief (about 50 words) explanation of its significance. We then implemented a dissemination strategy, compiling contact information for hundreds of organizations across the country and exploiting social media platforms as well as our diverse personal networks.

We have been delighted at the overwhelmingly positive response that the slides have received (more than 200 unique visitors to the website within the first 24 hours, and over 2,000 unique visitors to date). It has been satisfying to read notes from users who have incorporated the slides into education materials in classrooms and newsrooms across the country.

As discussions of inequality continue to command widespread attention in light of the upcoming election season (and hopefully beyond), we will continue to look for new and improved ways to present and disseminate this cutting-edge research on inequality. For more information on the project, see We welcome comments, questions, and suggestions for improvement at or

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