At Columbia University, which is located just blocks from Harlem in Manhattan's West Side, wealth and poverty are closer together than they are in many places in New York City. This is where American economist and 2001 Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz works as a professor. The Gary, Indiana native has spent years examining social inequality. His first personal experience with the issue came when, as a young boy, he asked why his nanny wasn't caring for her own children. Later, as the World Bank's chief economist, he studied the phenomenon on a global level. In June, he published a book on the topic entitled "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future," which has just been released in German as well. In a SPIEGEL interview, Stiglitz discusses how wealth disparity is dividing America and how Europe can best overcome the euro crisis.
SPIEGEL: Professor Stiglitz, how do you expect the next President of the United States to tackle the problem of unequal distribution of wealth?
Stiglitz: First, he has to recognize that there is a problem at all. Watching inequality grow is like watching the grass grow. You don't see it happening day by day, but over a period of time it becomes visible.
SPIEGEL: What is the scale this inequality?
Stiglitz: In the last decades, income and wealth disparity have grown dramatically in this country. Let me give you an example: In 2011, the six heirs to the Walmart empire commanded wealth of almost $70 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of US society.
SPIEGEL: The US has always thought of itself as a land of opportunity where people can go from rags to riches. What has become of the American dream?
Stiglitz: This belief is still powerful, but the American dream has become a myth. The life chances of a young US citizen are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in any other advanced industrial country for which there is data. The belief in the American dream is reinforced by anecdotes, by dramatic examples of individuals who have made it from the bottom to the top -- but what matters most are an individual's life chances. The belief in the American dream is not supported by the data.
SPIEGEL: What do the numbers suggest?
Stiglitz: There has been no improvement in well-being for the typical American family for 20 years. On the other side, the top one percent of the population gets 40 percent more in one week than the bottom fifth receive in a full year. In short, we have become a divided society. America has created a marvelous economic machine, but most of the benefits have gone to the top.
SPIEGEL: With five more weeks to go in the presidential campaign, inequality hasn't played a serious role yet, though.
Stiglitz: It has been a topic, but typically only underneath the surface. One cannot expect a scientific debate on the Gini coefficient, the statistical measure of inequality. But when the Democrats say that they are supporting the middle class, they are really talking about inequality. And they highlight the contrast with the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who is emblematic of the top one percent of the population. Romney's denigration of the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes had an enormous reaction, partly because it showed how out of touch those at the top were with the rest of the country.