The Center's work on 'Income Inequality' Issues


Why More Inequality Means Less State Revenue — And How States Can Respond

September 19, 2014 at 11:06 am

Growing income inequality in recent decades has slowed state tax collections, a new report from Standard & Poor’s finds, making it harder to fund public services ― like education ― that lay the groundwork for a strong future and help push back against rising inequality. States need to adapt their tax codes to take growing inequality into account.

Virtually all states collect more taxes (as a share of family income) from low- and moderate-income families than from high-income families.  So it makes sense that collections would slow when, as we’ve documented, the lion’s share of income growth goes to the richest families.

  • Many states have a flat-rate or nearly flat-rate income tax.  A flat income tax raises less revenue from economic growth — especially when most of the gains go to people at the top of the income scale — than a graduated income tax, which taxes higher incomes at higher rates.
  • Growth in sales tax collections weakens when low- and middle-income families’ incomes stagnate or grow more slowly, since they spend (rather than save) a larger share of their income than wealthy families do.
  • States’ antiquated sales tax rules favor high-income consumers.  Those at the top tend to spend more on services, like lawn care or health club memberships, which remain exempt from sales tax in many states.  They also spend a larger share of their income online — purchases that often are effectively tax-free.

States can respond to slowing tax collections by making their income tax more progressive through a more graduated rate structure.  This would make tax collections more responsive to economic growth, bringing faster revenue growth when the economy expands.  Tax collections would also fall more when the economy slows, but states can address this with stronger reserve funds, better mechanisms to manage surpluses, and other policy tools, as we have explained.

States also can broaden their sales tax base to include more services, including those used by high-income families, and extend the sales tax to Internet sales.

Over time, these changes would give states more resources to push back against rising inequality by investing in education and training, providing supports like child care assistance for low-wage workers, and adopting or expanding state earned income tax credits.

Conversely, if states fail to adapt their tax systems to this growing problem, they will have an even harder time stemming the harmful rise in inequality.

Income Inequality Remains at Historic High, Census Data Show

September 18, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Income inequality remained near a record high in 2013 by several measures the Census Bureau released earlier this week, with data going back to 1967.

The principal Census summary measure of household income inequality, known as the “Gini coefficient,” was not statistically different from the record high in 2012.  And the share of national income that goes to the top fifth of households was 51.0 percent, not statistically different from its record high of 51.1 percent in 2011.  The share of the nation’s income going to the top 20 percent has been growing for decades, but it only recently surpassed 50 percent.  That means the top 20 percent of households receive more of the nation’s income than the bottom 80 percent combined (see chart).

The Census figures provide an incomplete look at pre-tax income inequality — for example, they don’t include capital gains (a major income source for the affluent) and don’t ask about earnings above $1.1 million, while also leaving out key income sources for the poor such as government food assistance, rent subsidies, and tax credits.

Still, the trend of high and rising inequality that the new data show is consistent with other recent studies.  For example, a recent Federal Reserve study finds evidence of growing income concentration between 2010 and 2013.  “Only families at the very top of the income distribution saw widespread income gains between 2010 and 2013,” the study found, as incomes grew for the nation as a whole but fell for middle- and lower-income households.  (Unlike the Census data, the Fed’s survey includes capital gains and SNAP — formerly food stamp — benefits.)

Preliminary tax-return data through 2012, as analyzed by economist Emmanuel Saez, provide further evidence about widening inequality in recent years.  Saez found that from 2009 to 2012, average pre-tax income of the top 1 percent of households rose 31 percent — or by about $300,000 per household — but rose by just 0.4 percent (an average of about $170) for the other 99 percent of households.  (These figures do not include government benefits and, thus, provide a picture of economic inequality before tax and transfer policies.)  The top 1 percent received 95 percent of the nation’s total rise in pre-tax income during this period, Saez found.

Tomorrow’s Poverty Data Will Give Only Partial Picture

September 15, 2014 at 4:19 pm

As our preview of tomorrow’s Census release of 2013 poverty data explains, the official poverty statistics are based on pre-tax cash income, so they omit support like SNAP (formerly food stamps) and rental subsidies, as well as tax-based assistance like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  Later this year Census will release 2013 figures using an alternative poverty measure —the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) — that includes these benefits.  Columbia University researchers recently estimated a version of the SPM called the “anchored” SPM for 1967 through 2012, and this measure tells a somewhat less dreary story about poverty trends over the last decade than the official measure.

The official poverty rate rose from 11.3 percent to 12.5 percent between 2000 and 2007, in part due to widening income gaps and poorly shared economic growth, then leapt to 15 percent by 2012 due to the Great Recession and the slow recovery.  Under the SPM, in contrast, poverty remained essentially flat from 2000 to 2007 and rose only about halfas much as under the official measure — 1.3 percentage points, versus 2.5 percentage points — through 2012 (see graph).

The better performance under the SPM largely reflects the powerful role of SNAP and refundable tax credits like the EITC — as strengthened by policymakers both early in the decade and through largely temporary measures in the Great Recession — which helped keep more Americans from falling into poverty as the recession deepened.

In 2013, the SPM will continue to capture policy changes left out of the official measure.

In short, tomorrow’s figures on the official poverty rate will give a real but incomplete picture of poverty and anti-poverty policies.

Our chart book on the War on Poverty has more on these issues, including

5 Facts to Help You Understand Next Week’s Poverty Figures

September 12, 2014 at 9:51 am

Our new report provides context for the official poverty and income figures for 2013, which the Census Bureau will release on Tuesday.  Here are the highlights:

  1. As in other recent recoveries, poverty has been slow to decline.  Over time, poverty rates tend to move roughly in tandem with economic indicators, which generally improved slightly in 2013.  Thus, the poverty rate — which jumped from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 15.1 percent in 2010 and remained essentially unchanged at 15.0 percent in 2011 and 2012 — may start to improve in 2013 as well, although the improvement might not be statistically significant.A return to pre-recession poverty levels is unlikely soon.  To replace the millions of jobs lost in the Great Recession anytime soon and keep up with population growth, the economy must create jobs faster than it has to date.  Although the economic recovery (which officially began in June 2009) is not uniquely disappointing in this regard, it is still problematic — and because the economic downturn was so deep, there is much more ground to make up.  Recoveries in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s featured quicker reductions in poverty (see graph).
  1. Austerity policies likely hampered progress against poverty in 2013.  The economy almost certainly would have improved more in 2013 had austerity policies not reduced the government’s contribution to the economy.  These included the “sequestration” spending cuts of the 2011 Budget Control Act and first implemented in 2013 and the expiration of the payroll tax holiday, which reduced most workers’ take-home pay by 2 percent of earnings.
  2. Unequal wage growth also slowed progress.  Between 2009 and 2013, inflation-adjusted hourly wages rose by 1 percent for workers at the 95th percentile (workers whose wage levels exceed those of 95 percent of all workers but are less than the remaining 5 percent), but fell by about 4 to 6 percent for workers in the bottom 60 percent of the wage scale, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
  3. Income inequality tied a record-high level in 2012.  The income gap between rich and poor as measured by the Gini index — the Census Bureau’s main summary indicator of inequality in pre-tax cash income — tied a record in 2012, with the data going back to 1967.  Other inequality measures also stood at or near record levels in 2012.
  4. Most poverty figures released on Tuesday won’t reflect non-cash benefits.  The Census figures will focus on the official poverty statistics, which are based on pre-tax cash income and omit support such as food assistance and rental subsidies as well as tax-based assistance such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  An alternative Census Bureau poverty measure, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), includes these types of assistance, and experts generally consider it a more reliable tool for measuring changes in poverty over time as well as the safety net’s impact on poverty.  Unfortunately, Census will not release SPM figures for 2013 until later this year.  However, Census will release a table on Tuesday providing data on the poverty-reducing effects of certain programs, including SNAP (formerly food stamps) and the EITC.

Click here for the full report.

John Oliver Debunks Some Estate Tax Myths

July 14, 2014 at 4:55 pm

John Oliver’s HBO show this weekend featured a segment on income and wealth inequality (warning: colorful language!), and Oliver cited our paper showing that 99.86 percent of all estates in 2013 owed no estate tax (see chart).

As Oliver mentioned and our paper explains, contrary to the myth that many people face the estate tax, the first $5.25 million of every estate (effectively $10.5 million per married couple) is exempt from tax (with that level indexed for inflation).  That means that very few estates owe any tax.  For those few that did in 2013, the “effective” tax rate — that is, the percentage of the estate’s value that is paid in taxes — was 16.6 percent, on average.  That’s far below the top estate tax rate of 40 percent.

Rather than cutting investments in areas like education, medical research, and environmental protection in order to reduce the deficit, policymakers should be looking to strengthen the estate tax.  Learn more about the myths and realities of the federal estate tax here.