The Center's work on 'Income Inequality' Issues


Our Big-Picture Look at Inequality

December 10, 2014 at 11:58 am

“The broad facts of income inequality over the past six decades are easily summarized,” our newly updated Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality explains:

  • The years from the end of World War II into the 1970s were ones of substantial economic growth and broadly shared prosperity.
    • Incomes grew rapidly and at roughly the same rate up and down the income ladder, roughly doubling in inflation-adjusted terms between the late 1940s and early 1970s.
    • The income gap between those high up the income ladder and those on the middle and lower rungs — while substantial — did not change much during this period.
  • Beginning in the 1970s, economic growth slowed and the income gap widened.
    • Income growth for households in the middle and lower parts of the distribution slowed sharply, while incomes at the top continued to grow strongly. (See first graph below.)
    • The concentration of income at the very top of the distribution rose to levels last seen more than 80 years ago, during the “Roaring Twenties.” (See second graph below.)
  • Wealth — the value of a household’s property and financial assets, minus the value of its debts — is much more highly concentrated than income. The best survey data show that the top 3 percent of the distribution hold over half of all wealth.  Other research suggests that most of that is held by an even smaller percentage at the very top, whose share has been rising over the last three decades.

The guide describes common sources of income data and discusses their relative strengths and limitations in understanding income and inequality trends.  It also highlights the trends that those key data sources show and gives additional information on wealth (which helps measure how the richest Americans are doing) and poverty (which measures how the poorest Americans are doing).

5 Takeaways From Last Week’s Figures on Poverty, Inequality, and Health Coverage

September 25, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Here are five key findings from our analyses (here and here) and blog posts on the new figures from the Census Bureau and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  1. While poverty and median income improved last year for families with children,poverty rates reached record highs for childless families and individuals.  The poverty rate for individuals not living in families (people living alone or only with non-relatives) rose to 23.3 percent in 2013, the highest in over 30 years.  The poverty rate for childless families (childless couples, older couples or other families whose children have moved away or turned 18, and other relatives who live together), while much lower at 6.2 percent, was also the highest in over three decades.
  1. Income inequality remained historically high.  The share of the nation’s income going to the bottom fifth of households remained at 3.2 percent, tied for the lowest level on record with data back to 1967.  The ratio of the median income of the top fifth of households to that of the bottom fifth topped 12 to 1 for the first time on record, with data back to 1967.
  1. Austerity policies limited progress on jobs, income, and poverty.  Instead of responding to continued weak job growth by creating jobs (such as by expanding infrastructure investments), policymakers adopted various austerity policies that constrained consumer spending and employment growth.  Sequestration budget cuts, for example, lowered appropriations for most discretionary programs by 5 to 8 percent in 2013.  Policymakers also allowed a payroll tax holiday to expire after December 2012 and allowed tax cuts for very high-income individuals to expire (though the latter mattered less for consumer demand since high-income people’s spending is less sensitive to tax changes).  The Congressional Budget Office projected in early 2013 that these measures would reduce economic growth over the year by about 1½ percentage points and lower employment by more than 1 million jobs.
  1. The uninsured rate fell slightly last year and is falling further in 2014, as health reform’s major coverage expansions take effect.  The share of Americans without health coverage fell from 14.8 percent to 14.5 percent in 2013, according to Census’ American Community Survey.  And preliminary data from CDC — the first government survey data that reflect the early impact of the coverage expansions (the Medicaid expansion and subsidized marketplace coverage) — show that the number of uninsured fell by 3.8 million in the first quarter of 2014.
  1. The coverage gap between states that have expanded Medicaid and states that haven’t is widening.  In 2013,before the expansion took effect, some 14.1 percent of the people in the 27 expansion states (including Washington, D.C.) were uninsured, compared to 17.3 percent in the 24 non-expansion states.  Figures for the first part of 2014 show the gap is widening.  For example, CDC data show that 15.7 percent of non-elderly adults in expansion states were uninsured in the first quarter of 2014, compared to 21.5 percent for non-expansion states (see graph).

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