The Broken Ladder: Book Review


The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die

By Keith Payne

YW Book Review:

Over the past fifty years there has been a dramatic rise in income inequality in America.  According to Psychologist Keith Payne, studies show that “the income gap between white and black families has remained more or less constant since the 1960s.  In 1967 the average black family earned 55% of what white families earned.  In 2011, that figure was 59%.  In 2013, white families had 13 times the wealth of average black families and 10 times the wealth of Hispanic families.”  The disparities outlined in the nine chapters of Payne’s book, The Broken Ladder:  How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die offer a framework for understanding inequality through a series of studies conducted at the intersections of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral science.

Pairing anecdotes with research studies, the book makes a strong case for why all of us, regardless of race or social status should care about the negative impacts of inequality, and the many threats it poses to the health and wellness of individuals, communities and society as a whole. 

Research buffs will enjoy the data-driven narratives that form the backbone of this book, while those who prefer anecdotal perspectives will find several personal stories that tie the research together and mover the main ideas along smoothly and persuasively.  Each chapter builds common ground by delving into aspects of our shared cultural experiences as Americans.  The topics are often challenging but the language is straightforward and easy to digest.


The chapter include the following titles:

  1. Lunch Lady Economics: Why Feeling Poor Hurts Like Being Poor
  2. Relatively Easy: Why We Can’t Stop Comparing Ourselves to Others
  3. Poor Logic: Inequality Has a Logic of Its Own
  4. The Right, the Left, and the Ladder: How Inequality Divides Our Politics
  5. Long Lives and Tall Tombstones: Inequality Is a Matter of Life and Death
  6. God, Conspiracies, and the Language of the Angels: Why People Believe What They Need to Believe
  7. Inequality in Black and White: The Dangerous Dance of Racial and Economic Inequality
  8. The Corporate Ladder: Why Fair Pay Signals Fair Play
  9. The Art of Living Vertically: Flatter Ladders, Comparing with Care, and the Things That Matter Most


Given YW Boston’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women, this book caught our attention.  It is a timely and informative text that provides additional insights into why we at YW invest a great deal of energy working to eliminate racism, address inequalities and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.   While there is a lot of information to process, the chapters that packed the most punch for us in our work were chapters 3, 5,7 and 8.  These chapter hone in on the problems of inequality using lenses that magnify the intricacies of systemic oppression and the toll it takes on the health and wellness of not only the disenfranchised, but also those in the middle and upper echelons, those who most benefit from a system that is seriously fractured and growing steadily out balance. Payne emphasizes the importance of understanding this from a human centered perspective.  He considers intersectionality and explores the ways in which multiple factors like race, class, gender and socio-economic status determine the severity of our experiences and shape intrinsic biases that perpetuate and compound problems of inequity over time. 

“Racial inequality is qualitatively different from income inequality.  Rich and poor exist among all racial groups and racial discrimination affects the lives of African Americans and other minority groups even when they are not poor.  Although racial and economic inequalities are separate issues, they have been intersecting more and more often in recent years as racial inequality stumbles ever so slowly downward and income inequality steadily rises.  In this chapter, we will discuss how widening inequality throws fuel on the fire of racial prejudice and how racial stereotypes are used to justify and preserve that inequality.”

This introduction to chapter 7, Inequality in Black and White: The Dangerous Dance of Racial and Economic Inequality, makes a strong case for how and why “economic anxieties fuel racial conflicts.”  In the political climate we currently find ourselves in, it is not difficult to see the correlations.  Payne references a poll given to both white and black research participants who were asked if they believed that discrimination was more of a problem for white or black people. 

“Whites seemed to view discrimination as a zero-sum game.  The less discrimination they perceived against blacks, the more they saw it turned against whites. The trend was so stark in the eyes of white respondents, that by the 2000s they judged discrimination against whites to be a bigger problem than discrimination against blacks.  The data however, tell a very different story.”

Payne goes on to reference several findings that magnify how little progress has been made in creating economic equality between races.  He points out data that show improvements in access to educational opportunities for people of color, but ongoing stagnation overall in upward mobility.

“Although the gaps between black and white families have narrowed for high school graduation rates and more modestly for college graduation, those improvements have not translated into a lessening of the income gaps…  Something is preventing gains in education from translating into reduced income and wealth gaps.  One factor is home-ownership, which is much higher for white families.  A second, closely related factor is inheritance.  Once a family has accumulated some wealth, it can be used for buying a home or establishing other assets for the next generation, but in black and Latino families, where the average wealth is close to zero, each generation starts essentially from scratch.   

Economists have identified several other factors that contribute to wealth gaps, including differences in incarceration rates and marriage and divorce rates.  But it is impossible to understand these disparities without also understanding the role of racial discrimination, which creates a constant set of pressures on minority families.  These imbalances in wealth, education and home ownership can serve as a kind of Rorschach test.  If you believe that minority families are themselves to blame for their fates, then you can view these data as proof of it.  And if you think minority families are the victims of discrimination and a systematic lack of opportunity, you can find support for that theory in the numbers as well.   The problem is that the role of discrimination is very hard to isolate using statistics…  Data on average wealth or home ownership can tell us that disparities exist but they can’t explain why.  For that, we need to turn to people’s behavior.”

Payne introduces an experiment conducted by a sociologist named Devah Pager, who set out to test for real-world discrimination by studying the behavior patterns of potential employers in Milwaukee.  She gave a black applicant and a white applicant the same script and identical credentials on a fabricated resume and sent them out to apply for a total of 350 randomized jobs. 

“Did the results support the anti-white bias that the zero-sum survey respondents believed existed?  Not even close.  The white applicant was called back twice as often as the equally qualified black applicant.  Similar studies have been repeated with the same result in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and other cities.”

Despite the gains of the Civil Right Movement in the 1960s, income inequality between blacks and whites has remained a problem for many decades and does not appear to be letting up any time soon.  At least not without our direct participation and willingness to confront the racial biases, the rampant racism and discrimination that permeates almost every system or institution that might potentially create meaningful change in balancing inequities.

“Statistically speaking, if you want to predict who is predisposed against welfare, you can mostly ignore their economic principles.  What you really need to know is their prejudices.  While it may not be surprising, that the average person views welfare in racially tinged terms, the truth is that welfare recipients are about evenly divided among white, black and Hispanic recipients.  But when analyzed, depictions of welfare recipients on television and news magazines since the 1960s, studies found a clear racial bias.  When welfare recipients were depicted as the deserving poor, they were mostly white but when they were portrayed as lazy and dishonest, they were overwhelmingly black.  This cultural messaging linking welfare to lazy people in general, and lazy black people in particular, makes it difficult to discuss welfare without racial overtones.”

How do we reach out and help lift those who need support, when the resources to do so are constantly contested, or worse, nonexistent?  How do we help empower people who have to live their lives battered by systems built and maintained by those far removed from the realities of the lives they impact and affect with their choices?  How do we help people see and understand the roles they play in creating and sustaining inequality?  The Broken Ladder provides an abundance of ways to think through the problems of inequity and offers, as a key step, the opportunity for self-reflection.

“Understanding implicit bias requires taking a more nuanced approach to the individuals we are easily tempted to label as racist or not racist.  If you consider whether you yourself are biased and why, you will likely focus on your conscious thoughts and beliefs, your values and good intentions.  Having reflected on what a fundamentally good person you are, you will conclude that implicit bias is other people’s problem.  Although we would all like to believe ourselves to be members of the not-racist club, we are all steeped in a culture whose history and present is built on massive, racial inequality.”


Learn more about the work that YW Boston is doing to help eliminate racism and create a more equitable society for all: