The Gap in Citizenship

On today, an article was published entitled “Why Inequality is bad for you — and everyone else.” This article, written by Richard Wilkinson, an emeritus professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, referenced his own recent TED talk that he gave regarding the negative effects of the huge economic gaps in society.

Here is the link to the TED talk:


Wilkinson argues that data now shows how inequality is socially corrosive, for social problems are proved to be much worse in societies where there are larger gaps between the rich and the poor. Interestingly, he believes that the problems are not limited to those who are at the bottom of society; economic inequalities ultimately affect up to 95% of those in the population. Wilkinson writes,

Greater income inequality seems to amplify and intensify the effects of social status differentiation — bigger material differences creating bigger social distances. So the most common trigger to violence seems to be people feeling disrespected and looked down on. Although social class imprints its effects on us from earliest childhood onward, greater inequality makes these effects more marked.

Reading the article and watching the TED talk immediately reminded me of Shklar’s book, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion. Shklar argues that citizenship is the same as standing, and in order to obtain standing and public respect, Americans need to have the right to vote and the right to earn. American citizens don’t need to be acting on their right to vote, but they most definitely need to be earning according to Shklar; these two pillars are absolutely crucial to American citizenship.

The connections between Shklar and Wilkinson are quite interesting, though. In this article, I thought that Wilkinson seemed to be describing the gap between the rich and the poor as the same as the gap between citizens and non-citizens. In both cases, this gap represents that transition to the other side of the spectrum thus the transformation of a person’s standing in society. If the poorer people are feeling disrespected and looked down on as a result of this widening economic gap according to Wilkinson, their standing in society also alters. Wilkinson implies that social standing is affected by economic factors; therefore, how would Wilkinson interpret Shklar’s “right to earn” pillar of citizenship?

Wilkinson provides a solution to the widening economic gap. He promotes a socially cooperative society that would avoid conflict and competition. Wilkinson writes,

Depending on our social relationships, other people can be the best — or the worst.

Wilkinson poses a question to the reader asking whether or not we are growing up in a world where competition is constant and trust is rare, or whether we are growing up in a world which depends on cooperation and reciprocity. In political theory terms, he is asking if our society is placing more emphasis on self-interested, classic liberalism virtues or altriustic, civic republicanism beliefs.

Personally, I believe that it is vital for our society to take a much more altruistic  approach, and with that approach, Shklar’s definition of citizenship should no longer be applicable. Ultimately, Wilkinson’s egalitarian and altruistic solutions to economic problems are a much more civic republican outlook on the definition of citizenship. If the gap between the rich and the poor is smaller, there are less social problems in society. Similarly, if the gap between citizens and non-citizens is smaller, there are less divisions between the population. I believe that Wilkinson wants to erase that widening gap because he seems it detrimental to most of society whereas Shklar seems to create and foster that division in standing. Aren’t Wilkinson and Shklar at odds with each other? Can a quasi-egalitarian society erase the widening gaps in economic status and erase the arguments between who is and is not a citizen?

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2 Responses to The Gap in Citizenship

  1. kmuth0307 says:

    This is a very interesting post. When considering Shklar’s view of citizenship in comparison to Wilkinson’s opinions on economy, I feel that they compliment each other, and disagree simultaneously. Shklar describes who is “in” and who is “out” in society based on her criteria of voting and earning. Wilkinson has a complimentary view to her claim on earning. He notices that the AMOUNT citizens are earning is effecting their standing in society, which of course it does. This fits into Shklar’s opinion on citizenship as standing. However, they differ in the specific criteria that make a citizen. Nowhere does Wilkinson discuss voting, and he also only addresses those that are earning, obviously leaving out a lot of individuals.

    In the big picture, they are both pointing out the obvious gaps in social/ economic society and attempting to bridge these gaps and include more individuals and a more cohesive country, a positive goal. However, I feel the difference lies in that Wilkinson still sees a difference in class as inherent to a democratic society. Shklar on the other hand, does not address a difference in class. I feel that her opinions imply a desire for a completely equal society. As she describes standing as earning and voting, she implies that to carry out her opinions to the end, would make a society of everyone included and everyone earning equally (earning equally would make every citizen an equal). This however, will never be successful in society. The moment someone realizes that they can work four hours or eight hours, and make the same amount, they will discontinue to apply themselves. In my opinion the driving force in our economy in a democratic society is COMPETITION. History proves that once competition is present in society, individuals work harder, produce more, and quality of living (on the average) goes up. When countries go through the revolution of agrarian society to industrial society, competition becomes greater. The quality of life is greatly improved and individuals work longer hours and earn much more.

    When you remove competition from society, quality of life is reduced and individuals are not compelled to “hustle for their money.” For example, emergency room doctors make a large sum of money and elementary teachers do not. ( I personally do not think it is right for this to be the case, as teachers are the cornerstone of a country’s literacy rate, however for the purposes of this argument I will use this as an example.) If teachers and doctors made the same amount of money, what would most choose? Teachers attend school for generally four years, doctors train for roughly 8-12. Schooling is more expensive to become a doctor, and the level of literacy required is generally higher. In this example, most would choose to be a teacher, because why would you willing pay more for education, work harder, work longer hours, and be paid the same amount? One of the inherent flaws in the welfare system is that there are definitely members of society who need it and use it to get back on their feet again, whereas others think “Why would I work hard to spend time and money on education and finding a job, when the government is paying my bills, feeding me, and giving me health care?” I do not know the solution to this problem, but I believe that offering more services through welfare is potentially coddling individuals capable of working.

    To conclude, Shklar and Wilkinson have similarities and differences in their argument. In my opinion Shklar’s ideal society is one with no competition and equality in standing, earning, and voting. Wilkinson does not address voting, however he focuses on the subject of earning, particularly the AMOUNT people are earning. I agree that there should be less of a gap between classes and earning, however as shown above, competition is vital to the economy and quality of life in society.

  2. jason5brown says:

    I agree with your claims that a more civic republican, altruistic outlook where people feel more of a sense of trust in each other and the community could help combat inequality. I also believe this can better be accomplished through Wilkerson’s advice to use more cooperative social strategies, especially because communication and networks are ever expanding with technology. My qualm is that it seems hypocritical to bash competition as Wilkerson does, when capitalism is the basis of our economic system, the way we earn. It is imperative in Shklar’s view that in order to be a citizen as standing that one be able to compete with other and earn. This is not something that should be frowned upon.
    However, in an New York Times piece in today’s week in review, Ross Douthat agrees with the problems of competition in our society in his op-ed The Reckless Meritocracy ( Drawing on the recent resignation of former New Jersey governor John Corzine whose company recently filed for bankruptcy after mismanaging $600 million of his customers’ money, he believes that earning in a meritocracy such as ours convinces those who are have risen to the top that they are capable of anything, which inevitably leads to the “worst disasters.” It seems that earning which puts the power in the individual who is able to rise to the top serves as a casual mechanism for producing policies that are inherently unequal. Earning can be conducive to citizenship and democracy if it is given the “civic meaning” that Shklar accredits to Benjamin Franklin. However, in its current form, it seems that our individualistic connotation of earning will only perpetuate income inequality.

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