UT students and faculty got a chance on Saturday to learn that income inequality is a bigger problem than perhaps expected and is caused by a variety of reasons.

At UT’s weekly Pregame Showcase, Nathan Kelly, associate professor of political science, spoke to the audience with his lecture, “The Politics of Income Inequality in the United States.”

Kelly earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He continued his education through research and has been working at UT since 2005. Kelly has been working on the subject for 10 years and asked his audience to set aside their political biases and acknowledge (their) predispositions.

“Anytime you’re talking about inequality,” he said, “it has a good chance to inflame passions on all sides of the debate.”

The half hour presentation addressed the questions of whether or not income inequality is a problem, how it changes and what can be done to lessen the gap between rich and poor.

Since the 1980s, income inequality has been rising significantly. It is now as high as it was during the Great Depression era. In comparison to 28 other countries, Kelly said that the U.S. places 22nd in that regard.

This year being an election year, passions were especially strong. This was evident during the question-and-answer portion of the showcase. Several audience members questioned the validity of Kelly’s explanations on the causation of income equality and the importance of some of his leading factors for the unequal distribution of wealth. Kelly defended his research and maintained his stance.

During the lecture, Kelly presented bipartisan arguments. Some believe the high level of income inequality is due to the rich working more hours than the poor, and that that is necessary for economic growth.

These arguments were countered by statistics proving that economic growth can be maintained without income inequality, and while higher income workers generally do work more hours than low income workers, inequality does not significantly rise or fall when the rich work more or less hours.

Kelly also addressed some of the consequences of continued income inequality, saying that political participation is decreased, economic growth is reduced and there is often social unrest.

Tyler Latham, freshman in political science and student senate representative for Reese Hall, was among those in attendance for Kelly’s presentation Saturday. Latham stated that he, too, has concerns about the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

“I am worried if these income trends continue, only the state’s wealthiest students will be able to attend the University of Tennessee,” Latham said. “And that group will become increasingly small.”

Kelly offered hope however. “(Although) inequality is high and rising in the United States … we can affect this outcome through the political process. The policy choices that we make matter.”

The next Pregame Showcase will be Oct. 20, when anthropology professor Dr. Dawnie Steadman discusses the role of science in locating and identifying crime victims and missing persons.