It’s true that the share of national income going to the richest 20 percent of households rose from 43.6 percent in 1975 to 49.6 percent in 2006, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has complete data. Meanwhile, families in the lowest fifth saw their piece of the pie fall from 4.3 percent to 3.3 percent.
Income statistics, however, don’t tell the whole story of Americans’ living standards. Looking at a far more direct measure of American families’ economic status — household consumption — indicates that the gap between rich and poor is far less than most assume, and that the abstract, income‐based way in which we measure the so‐called poverty rate no longer applies to our society.
The top fifth of American households earned an average of $149,963 a year in 2006. As shown in the first accompanying chart, they spent $69,863 on food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transportation, health care and other categories of consumption. The rest of their income went largely to taxes and savings.
The bottom fifth earned just $9,974, but spent nearly twice that — an average of $18,153 a year. How is that possible? A look at the far right‐hand column of the consumption chart, labeled “financial flows,” shows why: those lower‐income families have access to various sources of spending money that doesn’t fall under taxable income. These sources include portions of sales of property like homes and cars and securities that are not subject to capital gains taxes, insurance policies redeemed, or the drawing down of bank accounts. While some of these families are mired in poverty, many (the exact proportion is unclear) are headed by retirees and those temporarily between jobs, and thus their low income total doesn’t accurately reflect their long‐term financial status.
So, bearing this in mind, if we compare the incomes of the top and bottom fifths, we see a ratio of 15 to 1. If we turn to consumption, the gap declines to around 4 to 1. A similar narrowing takes place throughout all levels of income distribution. The middle 20 percent of families had incomes more than four times the bottom fifth. Yet their edge in consumption fell to about 2 to 1.
Let’s take the adjustments one step further. Richer households are larger — an average of 3.1 people in the top fifth, compared with 2.5 people in the middle fifth and 1.7 in the bottom fifth. If we look at consumption per person, the difference between the richest and poorest households falls to just 2.1 to 1. The average person in the middle fifth consumes just 29 percent more than someone living in a bottom‐fifth household.
To understand why consumption is a better guideline of economic prosperity than income, it helps to consider how our lives have changed. Nearly all American families now have refrigerators, stoves, color TVs, telephones and radios. Air‐conditioners, cars, VCRs or DVD players, microwave ovens, washing machines, clothes dryers and cellphones have reached more than 80 percent of households.
As the second chart, on the spread of consumption, shows, this wasn’t always so. The conveniences we take for granted today usually began as niche products only a few wealthy families could afford. In time, ownership spread through the levels of income distribution as rising wages and falling prices made them affordable in the currency that matters most — the amount of time one had to put in at work to gain the necessary purchasing power.