Tag: income inequality

The Middle Class Shrinks as the Number of High Income Households Grows

The day before yesterday, The Washington Post ran a piece with the alarming headline, “The middle class is shrinking just about everywhere in America.” Although you wouldn’t know it from the first few paragraphs, a shrinking middle class isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As HumanProgress.org Advisory Board member Mark Perry has pointed out, America’s middle class is disappearing primarily because people are moving into higher income groups, not falling into poverty. label Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that after adjusting for inflation, households with an annual income of $100,000 or more rose from a mere 8% of households in 1967 to a quarter of households in 2014.

According to the Pew Research Center, 11% fewer Americans were middle class in 2015 than in 1971, because 7% moved into higher income groups and 4% moved into lower income groups. The share of Americans in the upper middle and highest income tiers rose from 14% in 1971 to 21% in 2015. 

One has to read fairly far into the Washington Post’s coverage before seeing any mention of the fact that a shrinking middle class can mean growing incomes: 

“[In many] places, the shrinking middle class is actually a sign of economic gains, as more people who were once middle class have joined the ranks at the top. [For example, in] the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, the share of adults living in lower-income households has actually held steady [from 2000 to 2014]. The households disappearing from the middle-class, rather, are reflected in the growing numbers at the top.”

Other cities with a shrinking middle class, a growing upper class and very little change in the lower class include New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. So the next time you hear someone bemoan the “shrinking middle class,” take a closer look at the data and keep in mind that it may actually be a sign of growing prosperity. 

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Income Mobility, Regressive Regulations, and Personal Choices

Americans often move between different income brackets over the course of their lives. As covered in an earlier blog post, over 50 percent of Americans find themselves among the top 10 percent of income-earners for at least one year during their working lives, and over 11 percent of Americans will be counted among the top 1 percent of income-earners for at least one year.   

Fortunately, a great deal of what explains this income mobility are choices that are largely within an individual’s control. While people tend to earn more in their “prime earning years” than in their youth or old age, other key factors that explain income differences are education level, marital status, and number of earners per household.  As HumanProgress.org Advisory Board member Mark Perry recently wrote

The good news is that the key demographic factors that explain differences in household income are not fixed over our lifetimes and are largely under our control (e.g. staying in school and graduating, getting and staying married, etc.), which means that individuals and households are not destined to remain in a single income quintile forever.  

According to the U.S. economist Thomas Sowell, whom Perry cites, “Most working Americans, who were initially in the bottom 20% of income-earners, rise out of that bottom 20%. More of them end up in the top 20% than remain in the bottom 20%.”  

While people move between income groups over their lifetime, many worry that income inequality between different income groups is increasing. The growing income inequality is real, but its causes are more complex than the demagogues make them out to be. 

Consider, for example, the effect of “power couples,” or people with high levels of education marrying one another and forming dual-earner households. In a free society, people can marry whoever they want, even if it does contribute to widening income disparities. 

Or consider the effects of regressive government regulations on exacerbating income inequality. These include barriers to entry that protect incumbent businesses and stifle competition. To name one extreme example, Louisiana recently required a government-issued license to become a florist. Lifting more of these regressive regulations would aid income mobility and help to reduce income inequality, while also furthering economic growth. 

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The Middle Class Fared Better Than You Think

We’ve all heard it said that the “rich are getting richer” while the middle class suffers. Political figures on both the right and left frequently speak about the need to “bring back” or “restore” the “disappearing” middle class. Pew Research Center just put out a report that calls those ideas into question, according to a recent Washington Post opinion piece.

The report shows that from 1971 to 2014, middle-income households (meaning three-person households making from $41,869 to $125,608 annually in inflation-adjusted dollars) decreased from 61 to 50 percent of U.S. households. Why the 11 percentage point difference?

Seven of those 11 percentage points can be explained by households moving into a higher income bracket. High-income households grew from 14 percent to 21 percent of all households during the same period.

The Pew report also stated that all income groups have typically made double-digit pre-tax income gains since the 1970s:

Middle-income household income increased by 13% in the 1970s, 11% in the 1980s, and 12% in the 1990s. Lower-income households had gains of 13% in the 1970s, 8% in the 1980s and 15% in the 1990s. Upper-income households registered a 10% gain in the 1970s [and] 18% in both the 1980s and 1990s.

Then the Great Recession struck in the late 2000s. But even the Great Recession only removed 6 percentage points from the gains made by the middle class. In 2000, an average middle-income household earned 40 percent more than in 1970. In 2014, an average middle-income household earned 34 percent more than in 1970.

The Washington Post piece opines that “We’ve mistaken what is plausibly a one-time setback—the response to the Great Recession—for long-term stagnation. People have understandably but wrongly taken their recent experience and projected it onto the past.” We cannot predict the future, but it certainly seems as though the middle class has fared better than many people believe.

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Putting Income Inequality in Perspective

Debates about income inequality, “the top 1 percent,” and poverty typically examine those issues within the context of a single country. But, consider a global perspective. This web tool lets you find out which income percentile you belong to relative to all the other people in the world. If you make more than $32,400 per year, you are in the top 1 percent of the richest people in the world! 

And, bear in mind that the world is more prosperous than it has ever been in the past. Compared to you, the vast majority of people who have lived on this planet were desperately poor. Poverty, as Cato’s David Boaz put it in this online lecture, used to be ubiquitous. “Why are some people poor? That’s always the wrong question. The question is why are some people rich? Poverty is the natural condition of mankind, but it’s easy to forget that.” 

Fortunately, prosperity is rising and global inequality decreasing. Even as the world population has exploded, the number of people living in poverty has fallen. As a result of spreading prosperity, infant mortalityilliteracy, and malnutrition are in decline, and people are living longer. Extreme poverty’s end is in sight.

54% of Americans Say America Is Not Divided into “Haves” and “Have Nots”

Recent Gallup polling finds that 58% of Americans view themselves as “haves” while 38% say they are “have nots.” Nevertheless, most Americans (54%) reject the premise that the United States is a rigid economic hierarchy, while 45% say it’s a fair depiction.

When asked to choose, 58% of Americans view themselves as “haves,” a share fairly constant since 2003, and similar to 59% found in 1989. (There was a blip in the late 1990s when 60-67% said they were “haves.”) However, the share who say they are “have nots” has more than doubled from 17% in 1989 to 38% in 2015, as fewer Americans say they “don’t know.” In line with this trend, more Americans view the United States as a society divided into “haves” and “have nots” increasing from 39% in 1998 to 45% in 2015.* Similarly the share who say the US is not divided has declined rom 59% in 1998 to 54% today.

These data suggest that Americans have begun to focus more on economic status with increasing debate over rising income inequality.

Interestingly, while Hispanics are more likely (51%) to say they are a “have not” when pressed, a fully 60% reject the premise that America is “divided into haves and have nots.” This suggests that Hispanic Americans believe in upward income mobility. While some may not view themselves as a “have” today they or their children could be eventually.

While African-Americans are about equally likely as Hispanics to say they personally are a “have not” (48%), 69% view the country as divided between “haves” and “have nots,” 32 points higher than Hispanics.

White Americans tend to agree (57%) with Hispanics that America is not a divided land of “have” and “have nots,” however, they are about 20 points less likely to say, when pressed, they personally are a “have not.”

The share of Americans who think they are winners of the economic system has remained fairly constant over the past decade. However, more Americans are beginning to think the overall system is rigged in favor of economic division, but this view is not necessarily a product of their own experience. Instead, passionate public discourse over income inequality has likely played a key role in changing Americans’ perceptions about how the system works for others.

Read the full Gallup post here.

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* Note: Gallup found in 1998 that 71% of Americans rejected the idea that America is divided into two economic groups while 26% accepted the premise. However by 1998 59% rejected and 39% accepted the idea. It’s unclear if the decline between 1988 to 1998 is a a trend, or if 1988 registered an unusual response.

Immigration and Economic Inequality

Discussions of economic inequality are common nowadays thanks to Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  There are several good critiques of Piketty’s book and at least one wonderful podcast.  I’m not convinced that economic inequality in a (mostly) free-market economy matters one way or the other for economic growth, social stability, or political stability (ceteris paribus), so this blog is a response to those concerned that liberalized immigration could exacerbate wealth inequality.   

Papers on how immigrants affect the wages of Americans almost uniformly present the results as relative gains or losses compared to the wages of other workers.  While that work is valuable, below I will only discuss papers that focus exclusively on economic inequality caused by immigration. 

Borjas et. al. found that immigration (along with trade) only modestly affects earnings inequality – a role not substantial enough to account for more than a small percentage of the change.  Instead, he attributes the growth in income inequality to the acceleration of skills-biased technological change (SBTC) and other institutional changes in the labor market. 

David Card failed to find a substantially causal relationship between increased immigration and growth in wage inequality.  He discovered that immigration explains about 5 percent of the rise in overall wage inequality between 1980 and 2000.  An important distinction is between the wage inequality effects of immigration on natives and the effects on wage inequality for immigrants and natives.  While 5 percent of the growth in overall wage inequality can be attributed to immigration, immigration’s effect on native wage inequality is negligible.  Immigrants tend to have either very high or very low wages compared to natives, meaning that immigrants have a naturally higher residual level of income inequality than natives do.  Thus, immigration causes the economy-wide level of wage inequality to increase without changing native wage inequality.  Immigration has little, if any, effect on native wage inequality according to Card.

How Not to Spin a Big Drop in Top 1% Incomes

Pre-1944 method of estimating top 1% shares

When Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez release their annual estimates of top 1 percent incomes, you can count on The New York Times to put it in a front page headline with additional hype on the editorial page.  This time, however, the news was that the top 1 percent had suffered a 14.9 percent decline in real income in 2013 if capital gains are included, as they always had been until now.  

The New York Times heroic spin was “The Gains From the Economic Recovery Are Still Limited to the Top One Percent.”  The author, Justin Wolfers of the Peterson Institute wrote, “Emmanuel Saez … has just released preliminary estimates for 2013. The share of total income (excluding capital gains) going to the top 1 percent remains above one ­sixth, at 17.5 percent. By this measure, the concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago.”

I will have more to say about this in another blog post.  For now, I just want to call attention to the artistic way in which the subject was changed.  Since 2008, Saez has been comparing changes in top incomes (for which he has preliminary IRS data) to incomes of the bottom 90 percent (for which IRS data are singularly inappropriate).   He always included realized capital gains because that makes the top 1 percent share both larger and more cyclical.