Was Ancient Rome More Economically Equal than Modern-Day America?

By now, the entire country has heard the cries of the 99%. They have occupied Wall Street, the Capitol and various cities throughout the United States, from Phoenix to Philadelphia. By choosing to identify themselves as the 99%, Occupiers have brought to light the enormous wealth and income gap between the 1% and the rest of the country.

But how huge is the income inequality? This is America, after all, where we are proud to be predominantly middle class. Still, according to a recent from two historians, Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen, income inequality in America is now worse than in ancient Rome.

Rome, you say? Yes. As many of us learned in history class, the Ancient Roman ruling class lifestyle was the portrait of decadence and over-indulgence, with grand feasts where they gorged on food and wine. Wait, wait. There were also violent cage fights, an incredibly strong military, and tyrants.

Does that sound familiar?

“The numbers paint a picture of two Romes, one of respectable, if not fabulous, wealth and the other of meager wages, enough to survive day-to-day but not enough to prosper,” writes Tim de Chant on his blog, Per Square Mile. “The wealthy were also largely concentrated in the cities. It’s not unlike the U.S. today. Indeed, based on a widely used measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, imperial Rome was slightly more equal than the U.S.”

However, the top 1% of earners in Ancient Rome controlled merely 20% of the society’s wealth at the time. This pales in comparison to the almost 40% of American wealth owned by the top 1% of American earners.

While this tragic level of inequality in the United States is likely to surprise most, much of the Millennial generation is already well aware of these disturbing facts – which is why we took to the streets to protest the insatiable greed of corporations and those running them. The unchecked greed that has raised the top 1%’s income 275% between 1979 and 2007 is the same greed that in part led to the economic collapse of 2008 and the financial calamity that followed.

Not only have the actions of the top 1% negatively impacted the economy, the existence of such a high level of income inequality may affect the U.S. economy in the long run. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, greater income equality correlates to positive economic growth.

Though the United States may have political strength of Ancient Rome, equal rights and equal access to the American Dream are cornerstones to our society. Unfortunately, as top earners’ wealth and incomes continue to grow, the rest of the country receives smaller and smaller shares of the pie. As that share of wealth vanishes, so do chances of achieving the American Dream. With income inequality higher than that of Ancient Rome, will American society degenerate to a tiered class structure of Ancient Rome as well?

What do you think of this? Will the widening income gap be the downfall of the American dream?

Aimee Louise Sison Born in LA, raised in the Philippines and suffering from a bad case of wanderlust, I consider myself a citizen of the world. A proud alumna of UC Berkeley, I live in San Francisco and work in the PR industry. You can find me dreaming, writing, eating or exploring a million of my other interests from social issues to ice cream flavors here: @Aimee587

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