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Social Inequalities

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Social Classification of Individuals. The provision for securing for all both equal rights and equal social opportunities does not eliminate the possibility of social inequalities ; for the status of an individual in society is, to a certain extent, measured by his individual ability and the application of that ability in an effort to improve himself. Thus, while in democratic society there may be a general tendency to make of individuals a homogeneous mass and destroy the graded orders of ethnic grouping, there yet exists sufficient variety among individuals to bring about inequalities in capacity and social position. There is a movement of society, but there is more than one " level of social motion "; consequently society is left in strata, and people are grouped about the centers of their own activity. We see laborers in the machine shop brought together by their particular industry ; we find those of the teaching profession in another group ; and we discover bankers in a third. The character of the work done influences the social grouping and, to a certain extent, determines the social status of an individual. And not only is there a division into groups ; but within the group there is a secondary classification based on ability or position. A great factory, for instance, will have managers, overseers, clerks, operators, and helpers. Thus, while there is no determined assumption of superiority, these natural industrial groups form the centers of social grouping.

Inequalities Arising from Individual Characteristics.' Wherever the word " equality " is used in reference to individuals of a community, it refers to freedom in the choice of opportunities, the chance for a man to use his capacities either in the cooperative or the competitive market ; but it has no reference to the equalizing of powers or conditions, nor to the insurance of results. All the world is a market ; and in it men make the best possible exchange of their personal powers or services for services of another sort. Now this trading capacity, if we may so call it, may be superior physical strength, intellectual power, moral character, religious nature, or personal attractiveness. And it stands to reason that the individual with a pleasing personality can easily obtain an industrial or social position which the one of forbidding personality can acquire only by proving his natural handicap to be outweighed by other and stronger forces, such as will power and intellectual acumen.

Some of these inequalities of powers arise from natural sources. For example, people who are born with some physical defect are handicapped when they compete with those who, having strong physiques, possess greater trading capacity. And just as the man who is endowed with superior brain power may, if he use it to advantage, outstrip another of meaner intellectual capacity, so, too, will a man naturally possessed of high moral qualities have less to overcome and more to work with than one born with a strain of moral obliquity in his nature. Finally, there are the qualities of determination and perseverance, which none of those other capacities can compete against; for an individual who has each one of those prime qualities in excess may yet be outstripped by one who has power to organize his resources, and the force of will to apply his powers. Thus the individual who has a strong physical, intellectual, and moral nature, together with a pleasing personality, has the opportunity to acquire a superior position with comparative ease.

Inequalities Arising from the Natural Environment. Many a tribe or ethnic group has, by settling on sterile soil, condemned itself to perpetual poverty. And not only has it lived a dull, unprogressive life, but it has sometimes become extinct because of the pressure of physical environment. Next in importance to infertility of soil are climate influences, for they tend to destroy the health of individuals, to limit their labor power, to reduce their general vitality. These climatic conditions may arise out of poor drainage, excessive heat or excessive moisture, great variations in temperature, or generally unhealthful conditions. For instance, the struggle to overcome climatic conditions in the Tropics will not permit of a high degree of civilization in that region. As another illustration, the writers have in mind a group of people who settled on a river bottom in a Western state. In the period of melting snows, this river, after plunging furiously down the mountain side, spread out into sloughs and bayous full of stagnant water, excellent breeding grounds for mosquitoes. And because the malaria carried by these mosquitoes kept the people sick for a large part of the year, their power to labor was curtailed at the same time that their expenses were added to. And after they had mortgaged their farms to perpetuate life, they were finally obliged to leave the lowlands and flee into the foothills, where a healthy climate permitted them to live.

Then there are the parasite enemies of plants, which must necessarily be enemies to man as well. The codling-moth, the boll-weevil, the phylloxera or chinch-bug, and the army worm sometimes make such ravages on vegetation as to destroy all the economic products of a community and reduce the people to poverty. Such a calamity may, by giving them unequal chances with others, determine their economic and social position in the world.

Or bacteria, the greatest modern enemies of human life, may, through disease, destroy a man's chances for physical, intellectual, or social supremacy. Nearly 750,000 preventable deaths occur annually in the United States alone. It is estimated that $46o,000,000 is the annual cost of illness and death in the families of our American working men, or $96o,000,000 a year, if to the first sum are added loss of wages through sickness and death. The sad part of the matter is that at least $500,000,000 of this expense is unnecessary. Hookworm in our Southern states decreases the annual earning capacity by $5o,000,000 ; and every year tuberculosis, by throwing thousands out of work, drops them from the race for self-support and advancement in economic and social welfare.'

Only, therefore, as science and economic organization are brought to bear upon these enemies of humanity, will the inequalities of life be reduced. A short time ago a discovery was thought to be made concerning yellow fever bacteria ; and yet more recently the yellow fever germ seemed to be found in a minute animal parasite carried by a species of mosquito. The diphtheria germ has been isolated ; and it is now destroyed by means of the injection of a serum into the veins of the sufferer. Then, too, the fight to aid man in his battle with the natural enemies of his plants and animals becomes, each succeeding year, more energetic, more certain of success. Nor is this all. Science is gradually discovering the causes and preventives for diseases due to bad climatic conditions. And as a result, great natural resources, hitherto unavailable, are now being devoted to the advancement of civilization.

Inequalities Arising from Accident. Many people lose their normal position in the social and economic scale through earth-quakes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, railway wrecks, fires, and the common accidents of industrial life. These accidents naturally have a vast influence over the lives of their victims ; for they often render people unfit to struggle along in the rank and file of humanity. Some, of course, having an inherent power of sudden recovery from misfortune, are enabled to regain their former position ; but there are others who go down in the struggle. For example, a certain family owned a piece of land along the Kansas River, which for years had yielded them a handsome income. But there came a flood which destroyed their growing crops, washed away large portions of the farms, and ruined or depreciated others. After the flood had subsided, they moved back into their home and began, with earnest efforts, to till remaining portions of the soil and restore their lost fortunes. Unfortunately, however, typhoid fever so prostrated the entire family that they were soon thrown upon the care of the public. Thus, within six months, a well-to-do family group had been reduced to poverty by accident. Nor is such an experience an unusual one. Accident, health, life, industrial insurance, and old age insurance schemes promise to do much, however, to alleviate such misfortunes as these ; for when the economic results of these disasters are spread over the entire community, equality of economic opportunity will, to a certain degree, at least, be secured. So, too, are the inequalities due to natural conditions reduced by thrift agencies, such as savings banks, both private and governmental, safe investment companies for the man of small means, and schemes like the small allotment plan of Great Britain, by which a man has the help of the government to secure a little home of his own.

Inequalities Arising from Social Environment. Besides the natural forces which render unequal the struggle for life and wealth, there is a certain social pressure which arises from artificial conditions. There are, in the first place, the great inequalities of wealth which we meet at every turn of life and which, though somewhat dependent upon individual characteristics and the workings of natural forces, are, after all, largely due to social conditions. If, for instance, a few people have absorbed the wealth of the community and used it arbitrarily, then all the others have an unequal chance with them in the struggle for independence. The fact is that, in the modern economic life, the use of capital in production is so essential that the man without it cannot compete with the one who possesses it. Then, too, the man born in a hovel, surrounded by squalor and poverty, has an unequal chance with the man born in a mansion, surrounded by culture and luxury ; for although it is true that the individual born in poverty may rise above his condition, it is with great effort and against fearful odds that he does so. On the other hand, it is also true that the man born in the palace may fail to use his opportunities and consequently make a wreck of life. Yet these various statements are not inconsistent with the general proposition that wealth and poverty bring people into the world with unequal opportunities for position and power.

Industrial conditions may also have much to do with the success of some and the failure of others. When there is great prosperity in a community, it is easier for people to succeed than where there is great trade depression or where there are bad conditions generally. But as these business conditions are constantly shifting, it happens that even men of foresight and shrewdness are frequently ruined by unexpected industrial changes. On the other hand, there are men who, associating in business with men of industrial power, have the good for-tune to enter industrial enterprises which succeed on account of the favorable shifting of social conditions. And finally there is always that struggling and unlucky majority men who cannot successfully compete with the more fortunate few.

There is, indeed, an incompleteness of business organization which leaves a large number of people outside of the general opportunities for business success. Some of the difficulty arises from uncoordinated individual effort in the modern business life ; but this defect is rapidly being atoned for by the organization of men in groups for the purposes of production and distribution. And should business ever become completely organized on a cooperative basis, opportunities would be more nearly equalized, and wealth would, to a certain extent, be redistributed.

Nor is inequality of power much less a fact in the political world than it is elsewhere in society; for, although it has been the boast of the United States that the American people have equal opportunities for political and civil power, we know that even here there are not only unequal capacities, but unequal opportunities as well. Liberty of action may, to a certain extent, have been secured ; but political equality has not been an essential outcome of this liberty of action. Money and prestige can still secure place and power, can still blind the eyes of justice. And although efforts are being made to secure the social equality of every man, both at the ballot box and in the courts, the wisdom of man has not yet been equal to the task. The corrupt practices acts, it is true, are the attempts of various states to correct the inequalities of the ballot box ; but up to the present, our systems of court procedure have not been so perfected that the rich and powerful secure as summary justice as do the poor and politically friendless. After all, law alone cannot force men to recognize the social rights of others. Such recognition must be acquired by the slow process of political and social development, the growth of a sense of social justice, and a passion for the general welfare.

But not only are there inequalities of wealth and industrial conditions ; for even religious belief may be the cause of certain definite inequalities. A man, for example, of a strong religious nature, may owe his prominence to what he has accomplished in his church ; or in his struggle for success, he may be supported by some powerful religious organization. He has, in either case, an advantage over the man who has influence neither in a church nor in a religious society.

And finally, although here in the United States we have assumed that every child has the chance to choose his own vocation in life, such is not the case. Because of the complexity of our social life, the passing of our empire of free land, the increasing economic and social stratification of our people, and the lack of intelligent guidance of our children and youth, many a man is as much " born to " a low plane in our modern economic and social life as was the serf of medieval Europe to serfdom on some particular estate. The chief occupation must of necessity be modified by environment. The public mind, by the creation of social conditions, sets the limitations for individual choice. No less powerful, on the other hand, in the regulation of social position, are the inequalities arising from family distinction. A man who, for example, is related to the best families of a community has a greater opportunity to succeed than the man who is related to its worst families. To the term " best family " we do not, of course, give the arbitrary, and artificial, meaning accorded to it by polite society ; the term " best families " is used by us in contradistinction to " worst families." Indeed, it only too often happens that a man who, under ordinary circumstances, would succeed admirably, fails to gain a position of usefulness and power because of the weakness or wickedness of members of his own family.

The Modification of Inequality. Education, as it is con-ducted by the various states in the Union, represents perhaps the greatest power for the reduction of the inequalities of social life. The fact that the great mass of the people are associated in the same schools and given the same education, suggests that a leveling force is constantly being applied to the various social inequalities. It must be remembered, however, that the strong in mind and body still have the opportunity to outdistance their weaker competitors ; for those with will and brain power can, by availing themselves of the opportunities of higher education, gain power and influence over their fellows. And while we ought not to wish to diminish such inequality in capacity, we ought to try to educate our people to a sense of social responsibility for their superior natural endowment. For we have passed from that old idea of education, the elevation of one class above another, or to give the popular conception, the preparation of a man for an idle life. We now look at education as a means for elevating society at large and for creating the power to do a larger amount of work in a shorter time, to do it better, and to make it count in the welfare of society.

Thus we have seen that there is an insurmountable diversity in individual lives which leads from inequality of opportunity to inequality of power. This diversity we have, indeed, no desire to destroy. It should, however, be the aim of society to provide for the development of each separate power and capacity by removing or modifying natural inequalities so far as science and legislation can. For example, the inequalities of life could be greatly reduced by a positive program for better sanitation; the removal of causes of disease; protection against accident ; the destruction of dangerous microbes, bacteria, and predatory animals ; the curbing of the activities of predatory men and corporations ; and provisions for proper recreation. Moreover, the removal or modification of artificial inequalities might, in a measure, be obtained by better instruction concerning the rights, duties, and privileges of individuals and by the establishment of laws regulating civil service, universal suffrage, and equality in the use of public highways, buildings, and conveyances. Great care should be exercised to give equality before the law and in the making of the law. Such instruction and such privileges, together with freedom in the choice of position and service and the opportunity for universal education, would, indeed, reduce social inequalities to a minimum and make social control rather less necessary than it is now.


GIDDINGS, F. H. Inductive Sociology, p. 238.

KELLEY, EDMOND. Government or Human Evolution, pp. 335-360. WARD, LESTER F. Outlines of Sociology, pp. 262-293.


1. Take a social unit, such as a village, a country township, or a city, and make a classification showing the inequalities characteristic of the individuals therein.

2. Give an illustration of how social inequality is brought about by natural ability; by environment; by social circumstances into which one may be born.

3. Show how the extension of the franchise in England made for political equality ; how the invention of street cars and the production of such things as the cheap sewing machine, the postal savings bank, and the building and loan association, iron out the economic and social inequalities between classes.

4. What effect has such a device as the joint stock company had upon social inequality?

5. Show how popular education works for equality; how it produces inequality.

6. Why is it not desirable from the standpoint of the social welfare to have a dead level of human equality?

7. Is it socially desirable to have equality of natural capacity? Of economic opportunity? Of educational privileges?

8. What bearing has the fight against disease had on the problem of human equality? The agitation for industrial education? For compulsory school laws? For workmen's compensation laws? For employers' liability acts? For pensions for widows with children? For juvenile courts? For scientific relief of the poor?

Outlines Of Sociology:
Psychical Activities

Social Control

Aims Of Society

Ideals Of Government

Control By Force

Educational Method

Social Inequalities

Ideal Of Justice

Estimation Of Progress

Nature Of Social Pathology

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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