When we talk about income inequality, often we use something called the Gini coefficient that measures inequality in terms of income distribution.
To see where countries rank, the Gini coefficient has maximum and minimum values: a Gini of 0 is exact equality and a Gini of 1 is exact inequality. The 0 value means that everyone has the same share of income; the 1 value means that only one person has all the income and the rest have none. Countries fall in between. Canada's Gini coefficient as of 2011 is 0.32. The U.S. Gini coefficient is 0.41.
But what does that really mean? It's a hard concept to visualize.
Thanks to Beth Berman, a sociologist at SUNY Albany, who posted a blog on orgtheory.net using the seat configuration on airplanes as a way to see and understand income inequality more easily. Berman admits that her calculations are the "back of the envelope" kind, so Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, dug into the idea more deeply. While based on American data, it's not difficult to see how this would work out for Canada. These graphic from Healy's blog help put it all in perspective
For anyone who has flown somewhere, the distribution of space — first, business and economy — already reveals an unequal situation. It's not unlike income distribution. Passengers travelling in first class get superior comfort and service. Gourmet food, free drinks, more leg room, more comfortable seats, and more attentive service. In business class, it's a step down, but the amenities and service are still much higher than what you'd find in economy. Better known as cattle class, economy provides travellers with less seat space and leg room, more expensive prices for snacks and drinks, video screens that often do not work and much less attentive service, since there are far more people to serve than in the other classes.
If we impose the income inequality lens to this seating chart, we can see the stark differences in position.
For this demonstration, Berman uses a transatlantic plane equipped with air beds for ultimate flying comfort.
If we look at how the space on the plane is divided up, and think about it in terms of wealth and resources, we can see the problem.
As Berman explains,
21% of people use 40% of the plane
27% of people use 20% of the plane
52% of people use 40% of the plane.
In this case, the Gini coefficient is 0.25.
As Berman points out, "It’s also worth noting that the plane above, while unequal relative to the old-fashioned three-rows-of-first-class-and-the-rest-economy layout, is still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world."
In first class, fewer people have access to more space and comfort. in economy, more people are squeezed into less space and minimal comfort. And in business, people are somewhere in the middle but they are certainly feeling the spread of the first class.
Fewer people have access to more wealth and resources comprising the .1%, while the majority of people are in the lowest 10%.
Berman's calculations present "a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources."