In its latest daily chart, the Economist is highlighting research by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California and Thomas Picketty of the Paris School of Economics that illustrates the extent of the widening income inequality in the U.S.
You can read the Economist piece here - http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/09/daily-chart-8 - or go straight to Saez's research here - http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf
The numbers are shocking. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent saw their real income rise 31% while the bottom 99% saw gains of less than 1%. As a result, the top 1%'s share of national income rose to 19.3%, higher than at the height of the "Gilded Age" in the 1920s. Paul Krugman has a fine old rant about this story over at the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/13/opinion/krugman-rich-mans-recovery.html?hp
Some of this shift can be attributed to the Fed's policy of quantitative easing which has helped to devalue the dollar while inflating equity prices, reducing the cost of borrowing and generally pouring money into the coffers of banks and hedge fund managers (while bilking savers like insurers of a fair return on their bond investments). It is, however, also a continuation of a longer term trend of increasingly unequal distribution that dates back to 1967 - you can open an excel spreadsheet here showing income distribution for households by race from 1967 to 2011: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/families/2010/F04_2010.xls
This long-trend presents huge challenges for the insurance industry. It means that the ordinary people who buy life, auto, household and personal insurance are increasingly unable to afford basic cover. At the same time, these people have less discretionary income, so (and I admit this is a stretch) are less willing/able to commit to higher taxes to pay for environmental initiatives, or purchase expensive organic food or even fresh food, invest in their children's education, etc. They will have less to protect through insurance and no means to invest in the future.
In my home country of South Africa, which has one of the highest Gini Co-Efficients in the world today of about 0.7 (a Gini of 0 would imply perfect income distribution among all citizen while a co-efficient of 1 means that one individual has all the cash), massive income inequality is a huge contributor to all sorts of social ills, from the high crime rate and intense alienation of some communities to the growing power of radical labor unions, political parties and social groups. In the U.S., meanwhile, we have seen the inexorable rise of political groups like the Tea Party which increasingly reject government in much the same way (though I draw no equivalence) as the Nazis, Fascists and Communists rose to power in Europe in the early part of the last century.
The big question, then, is why have insurers been so unwilling to engage in this and other issues? The industry does lobby heavily in the U.S., spending a reported $150 million in 2012 - http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/lobbying.php?cycle=2012&ind;=F09 - but that spending seems to be larger focused on regulation of the industry (and largely seems to go to Republicans). There is less evidence that companies are looking to challenge government on issues like social equity, climate change, disaster resilience, funding longer lives, food security or sustainable energy. Companies seem willing to talk about these topics but surely if they are so important they need to go further and become visibly activist in fighting these causes. That may be anathema to the staid and conservative traditions of our industry but our future depends on the future of the society that we serve and that society looks like it is in deep trouble and needs our help.