This is America

A Quantitative Baseline for Truth

Walid ElAsmar and Anjali Oberoi | Woman. Person of color. Immigrant. Every member of the Bernoulli Finance team identifies with at least one of these attributes. While they do not define the way we work, we never had the choice to ignore them in our daily lives. Their impact has been all but abstract. In a way, this has been a blessing. Our understanding that gender, color, and culture lie at the roots of violence and disenfranchisement in the US is not just learned; it is visceral.

The Workshop though was never intended as a platform to discuss matters of social justice. There are many people out there who do a better job at that than we ever could. At the same time, Bernoulli Finance’s goal is to support mission-positive businesses. And this engagement would seem fragmentary and incomplete if, from time to time, we did not directly address the larger mission of advancing towards a more equitable and peaceful society. This feels particularly relevant in a time when racism, sexism, and homophobia seem to be having a ball sponsored by the most powerful.

So, we thought that we might be able to make a relevant contribution to the conversation by doing what we’re good at: finding significant numbers, and explaining how they are meaningful. There are political issues that are no longer up for debate, at least not with regards to accepting their reality. The data is available, and the data is clear. Disputing it is less a matter of opinion than one of decency, or lack thereof. That is what the following numbers are about. Our hope is that they can be used as pocket-tools for conversations with people who need to be shaken out of their views with an ice-bucket of truth.

FIVE DAYS FOR THE PRICE OF FOUR. That’s the special deal that black men have gotten themselves with the US judicial system. A study conducted by the government found that, for equal offences, the sentences handed to black men are on average 20% longer than those handed to white men with similar criminal histories. Consider that this is the cumulative making of the US’s federal judges who arguably receive more training on how to act impartially than any other professional body. That is to say that this statistic likely reveals only the tip of the iceberg of systemic racial discrimination in the US.

FOUR FIFTH OF A MAN. A woman in America makes on average 80% what a man makes in the same position. You may have noticed that many conservative commentators reject the significance of this statistic, citing differences in academic qualification and work experience as the real reasons behind the gender wage gap. In other words, they claim that men are on average better paid because they are on average more qualified, not because they are men. Yet researchers have repeatedly debunked the validity of this claim, and moved on to studying the impact of fancier factors like social norms and psychological attributes. One might argue that these fancy factors are mere euphemisms for workplace sexism. Regardless, a significant portion of the gender wage gap remains scientifically “unexplained”, no matter the approach used. Put simply, researchers cannot explain why a woman earns much less than a man in today’s America except for the fact that she is, well, a woman.

BAD HOMBRE AND TWICE SAFER. Few things are as flawed and rampant at the same time as the notion that immigration fosters insecurity. This is not to suggest that immigration shouldn’t be debated or even prioritized by policy makers. For one, its economic implications remain poorly understood and rightfully deserve some attention. However, when it comes to security, the data is unequivocal. An undocumented immigrant is less than half as likely to commit a crime as a native born American. The ratio for legal immigrants drops to less than a sixth. Even at a macro level, the evidence is there: an analysis of the crime rates reported by 200 American cities over a period of several decades proved that, most often, immigration influx is accompanied by a drop in crime.

COS MY GREAT-GREAT-GREAT-GRANDPA WAS POOR. Sadly, the American Dream is either dead or utterly overrated. In scientific terms, the concept to understand is “economic mobility”, which basically describes how easy it is for individuals in a society to climb the economic ladder. One way to measure economic mobility is by looking at how well people’s economic condition at birth predicts their present economic condition, i.e. what proportion of the current rich were born rich, and what proportion of the current poor were born poor. When those numbers drop, it means that people’s individual efforts have a growing impact on their condition; they are less limited by how poor or rich they were born. And, from that perspective, the US fares nowhere close to the top countries with the highest levels of economic mobility. It ranks 17th, well behind the leader Denmark, and worse that the OECD average. And if this is still sounding abstract, here’s a chilling statistic that materializes how little social mobility there is in the US: it takes on average five generations for a US family starting in the bottom 10% of society to climb into the middle class. For comparison, that number in Denmark is two generations only.

This is America.

 Average number of generations it takes for a family starting in the bottom 10% of society to climb to middle class, by country

Average number of generations it takes for a family starting in the bottom 10% of society to climb to middle class, by country


* Illustration by Dannae Alvarez