Income inequality in the United States has increased significantly since the 1970s after several decades of stability, meaning the share of the nation's income received by higher income households has increased. This trend is evident with income measured both before taxes (market income) as well as after taxes and transfer payments. Income inequality has fluctuated considerably since measurements began around 1915, moving in an arc between peaks in the 1920s and 2000s, with a 30-year period of relatively lower inequality between 19501980.
Measured for all households, U.S. income inequality is comparable to other developed countries before taxes and transfers, but is among the highest after taxes and transfers, meaning the U.S. shifts relatively less income from higher income households to lower income households. Measured for working-age households, market income inequality is comparatively high (rather than moderate) and the level of redistribution is moderate (not low). These comparisons indicate Americans shift from reliance on market income to reliance on income transfers later in life and less than households in other developed countries do.
The U.S. ranks around the 30th percentile in income inequality globally, meaning 70% of countries have a more equal income distribution. U.S. federal tax and transfer policies are progressive and therefore reduce income inequality measured after taxes and transfers. Tax and transfer policies together reduced income inequality slightly more in 2011 than in 1979.
While there is strong evidence that it has increased since the 1970s, there is active debate in the United States regarding the appropriate measurement, causes, effects and solutions to income inequality. The two major political parties have different approaches to the issue, with Democrats historically emphasizing that economic growth should result in shared prosperity (i.e., a pro-labor argument advocating income redistribution), while Republicans tend to downplay the validity or feasibility of positively influencing the issue (i.e., a pro-capital argument against redistribution).
U.S. income inequality has grown significantly since the early 1970s, after several decades of stability, and has been the subject of study of many scholars and institutions. The U.S. consistently exhibits higher rates of income inequality than most developed nations due to the nation's enhanced support of free market capitalism and less progressive spending on social services.
The top 1% of income earners received approximately 20% of the pre-tax income in 2013, versus approximately 10% from 1950 to 1980. The top 1% is not homogeneous, with the very top income households pulling away from others in the top 1%. For example, the top 0.1% of households received approximately 10% of the pre-tax income in 2013, versus approximately 34% between 19511981. According to IRS data, adjusted gross income (AGI) of approximately $430,000 was required to be in the top 1% in 2013.
Most of the growth in income inequality has been between the middle class and top earners, with the disparity widening the further one goes up in the income distribution. The bottom 50% earned 20% of the nation's pre-tax income in 1979; this fell steadily to 14% by 2007 and 13% by 2014. Income for the middle 40% group, a proxy for the middle class, fell from 45% in 1979 to 41% in both 2007 and 2014.
To put this change into perspective, if the US had the same income distribution it had in 1979, each family in the bottom 80% of the income distribution would have $11,000 more per year in income on average, or $916 per month. Half of the U.S. population lives in poverty or is low-income, according to U.S. Census data.
The trend of rising income inequality is also apparent after taxes and transfers. A 2011 study by the CBO found that the top earning 1 percent of households increased their income by about 275% after federal taxes and income transfers over a period between 1979 and 2007, compared to a gain of just under 40% for the 60 percent in the middle of America's income distribution. U.S. federal tax and transfer policies are progressive and therefore substantially reduce income inequality measured after taxes and transfers. They became moderately less progressive between 1979 and 2007 but slightly more progressive measured between 1979 and 2011. Income transfers had a greater impact on reducing inequality than taxes from 1979 to 2011.
Americans are not generally aware of the extent of inequality or recent trends. There is a direct relationship between actual income inequality and the public's views about the need to address the issue in most developed countries, but not in the U.S., where income inequality is worse but the concern is lower. The U.S. was ranked the 6th worst among 173 countries (4th percentile) on income equality measured by the Gini index.
There is significant and ongoing debate as to the causes, economic effects, and solutions regarding income inequality. While before-tax income inequality is subject to market factors (e.g., globalization, trade policy, labor policy, and international competition), after-tax income inequality can be directly affected by tax and transfer policy. U.S. income inequality is comparable to other developed nations before taxes and transfers, but is among the worst after taxes and transfers. Income inequality may contribute to slower economic growth, reduced income mobility, higher levels of household debt, and greater risk of financial crises and deflation.
Labor (workers) and capital (owners) have always battled over the share of the economic pie each obtains. The influence of the labor movement has waned in the U.S. since the 1960s along with union participation and more pro-capital laws. The share of total worker compensation has declined from 58% of national income (GDP) in 1970 to nearly 53% in 2013, contributing to income inequality. This has led to concerns that the economy has shifted too far in favor of capital, via a form of corporatism, corpocracy or neoliberalism.
Although some have spoken out in favor of moderate inequality as a form of incentive, others have warned against the current high levels of inequality, including Yale Nobel prize for economics winner Robert J. Shiller, (who called rising economic inequality "the most important problem that we are facing now today"), former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, ("This is not the type of thing which a democratic society a capitalist democratic society can really accept without addressing"), and President Barack Obama (who referred to the widening income gap as the "defining challenge of our time").
The level of concentration of income in the United States has fluctuated throughout its history. Going back to the early 20th Century, when income statistics started to become available, there has been a "great economic arc" from high inequality "to relative equality and back again," in the words of Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman. In 1915, an era in which the Rockefellers and Carnegies dominated American industry, the richest 1% of Americans earned roughly 18% of all income. By 2007, the top 1 percent account for 24% of all income. In between, their share fell below 10% for three decades.
The first era of inequality lasted roughly from the post-civil war era ("the Gilded Age") to sometime around 1937. But from about 1937 to 1947 a period that has been dubbed the "Great Compression" income inequality in the United States fell dramatically. Highly progressive New Deal taxation, the strengthening of unions, and regulation of the National War Labor Board during World War II raised the income of the poor and working class and lowered that of top earners. This "middle class society" of relatively low level of inequality remained fairly steady for about three decades ending in early 1970s, the product of relatively high wages for the US working class and political support for income leveling government policies.
Wages remained relatively high because of lack of foreign competition for American manufacturing, and strong trade unions. By 1947 more than a third of non-farm workers were union members, and unions both raised average wages for their membership, and indirectly, and to a lesser extent, raised wages for workers in similar occupations not represented by unions. Scholars believe political support for equalizing government policies was provided by high voter turnout from union voting drives, the support of the otherwise conservative South for the New Deal, and prestige that the massive mobilization and victory of World War II had given the government.
The return to high inequality or to what Krugman and journalist Timothy Noah have referred as the "Great Divergence", began in the 1970s. Studies have found income grew more unequal almost continuously except during the economic recessions in 199091, 2001 (Dot-com bubble), and 2007 sub-prime bust.
The Great Divergence differs in some ways from the pre-Depression era inequality. Before 1937, a larger share of top earners income came from capital (interest, dividends, income from rent, capital gains). After 1970, income of high-income taxpayers comes predominantly from labor: employment compensation.
Until 2011, the Great Divergence had not been a major political issue in America, but stagnation of middle-class income was. In 2009 the Barack Obama administration White House Middle Class Working Families Task Force convened to focus on economic issues specifically affecting middle-income Americans. In 2011, the Occupy movement drew considerable attention to income inequality in the country.
CBO reported that for the 1979-2007 period, after-tax income of households in the top 1 percent of earners grew by 275%, compared to 65% for the next 19%, just under 40% for the next 60%, 18% for the bottom fifth of households. "As a result of that uneven income growth," the report noted, "the share of total after-tax income received by the 1 percent of the population in households with the highest income more than doubled between 1979 and 2007, whereas the share received by low- and middle-income households declined.... The share of income received by the top 1 percent grew from about 8% in 1979 to over 17% in 2007. The share received by the other 19 percent of households in the highest income quintile (one fifth of the population as divided by income) was fairly flat over the same period, edging up from 35% to 36%."
According to the CBO, the major reason for observed rise in unequal distribution of after-tax income was an increase in market income, that is household income before taxes and transfers. Market income for a household is a combination of labor income (such as cash wages, employer-paid benefits, and employer-paid payroll taxes), business income (such as income from businesses and farms operated solely by their owners), capital gains (profits realized from the sale of assets and stock options), capital income (such as interest from deposits, dividends, and rental income), and other income. Of them, capital gains accounted for 80% of the increase in market income for the households in top 20%, in the 20002007 period. Even over the 19912000 period, according to the CBO, capital gains accounted for 45% of the market income for the top 20% households.
In a July 2015 op-ed article, Martin Feldstein, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, stated that the CBO found that from 1980 to 2010 real median household income rose by 15%. However, when the definition of income was expanded to include benefits and subtracted taxes, the CBO found that the median household's real income rose by 45%. Adjusting for household size, the gain increased to 53%.
Just as higher-income groups are more likely to enjoy financial gains when economic times are good, they are also likely to suffer more significant income losses during economic downturns and recessions when they are compared to lower income groups. Higher-income groups tend to derive relatively more of their income from more volatile sources related to capital income (business income, capital gains, and dividends), as opposed to labor income (wages and salaries). For example, in 2011 the top 1% of income earners derived 37% of their income from labor income, versus 62% for the middle quintile. On the other hand, the top 1% derived 58% of their income from capital as opposed to 4% for the middle quintile. Government transfers represented only 1% of the income of the top 1% but 25% for the middle quintile; the dollar amounts of these transfers tend to rise in recessions.
This effect occurred during the Great Recession of 20072009, when total income going to the bottom 99 percent of Americans declined by 11.6%, but fell by 36.3% for the top 1%. Declines were especially steep for capital gains, which fell by 75% in real (inflation-adjusted) terms between 2007 and 2009. Other sources of capital income also fell: interest income by 40% and dividend income by 33%. Wages, the largest source of income, fell by a more modest 6%.
The share of pretax income received by the top 1% fell from 18.7% in 2007 to 16.0% in 2008 and 13.4% in 2009, while the bottom four quintiles all had their share of pretax income increase from 2007 to 2009. The share of aftertax income received by the top 1% income group fell from 16.7%, in 2007, to 11.5%, in 2009.
The distribution of household incomes has become more unequal during the post-2008 economic recovery as the effects of the recession reversed. CBO reported in November 2014 that the share of pre-tax income received by the top 1% had risen from 13.3% in 2009 to 14.6% in 2011. During 2012 alone, incomes of the wealthiest 1 percent rose nearly 20%, whereas the income of the remaining 99 percent rose 1% in comparison.
If the United States had the same income distribution it had in 1979, the bottom 80 percent of the population would have $1 trillion or $11,000 per family more. The top 1 percent would have $1 trillion or $750,000 less. Larry Summers
According to an article in The New Yorker, by 2012, the share of pre-tax income received by the top 1% had returned to its pre-crisis peak, at around 23% of the pre-tax income. This is based on widely cited data from economist Emmanuel Saez, which uses "market income" and relies primarily on IRS data. The CBO uses both IRS data and Census data in its computations and reports a lower pre-tax figure for the top 1%. The two series were approximately 5 percentage points apart in 2011 (Saez at about 19.7% versus CBO at 14.6%), which would imply a CBO figure of about 18% in 2012 if that relationship holds, a significant increase versus the 14.6% CBO reported for 2011. The share of after-tax income received by the top 1% rose from 11.5% in 2009 to 12.6% in 2011.
Inflation-adjusted pre-tax income for the bottom 90% of American families fell between 2010 and 2013, with the middle income groups dropping the most, about 6% for the 40th-60th percentiles and 7% for the 20th-40th percentiles. Incomes in the top decile rose 2%.
The top 1% captured 91% of the real income growth per family during the 2009-2012 recovery period, with their pre-tax incomes growing 34.7% adjusted for inflation while the pre-tax incomes of the bottom 99% grew 0.8%. Measured from 20092015, the top 1% captured 52% of the total real income growth per family, indicating the recovery was becoming less "lopsided" in favor of higher income families. By 2015, the top 10% (top decile) had a 50.5% share of the pre-tax income, close its highest all-time level.
Tax increases on higher income earners were implemented in 2013 due to the Affordable Care Act and American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. CBO estimated that "average federal tax rates under 2013 law would be higher relative to tax rates in 2011 across the income spectrum. The estimated rates under 2013 law would still be well below the average rates from 1979 through 2011 for the bottom four income quintiles, slightly below the average rate over that period for households in the 81st through 99th percentiles, and well above the average rate over that period for households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution." In 2016, the economists Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson contended that inequality is the highest it has been since the nation's founding. French economist Thomas Piketty attributed the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, which he characterizes as an "electoral upset," to "the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States over several decades and the inability of successive governments to deal with this."
U.S. income inequality is comparable to other developed countries measured before taxes and transfers, but is among the worst after taxes and transfers.
According to the CBO and others, "the precise reasons for the [recent] rapid growth in income at the top are not well understood", but "in all likelihood," an "interaction of multiple factors" was involved. "Researchers have offered several potential rationales." Some of these rationales conflict, some overlap. They include:
Paul Krugman put several of these factors into context in January 2015: "Competition from emerging-economy exports has surely been a factor depressing wages in wealthier nations, although probably not the dominant force. More important, soaring incomes at the top were achieved, in large part, by squeezing those below: by cutting wages, slashing benefits, crushing unions, and diverting a rising share of national resources to financial wheeling and dealing...Perhaps more important still, the wealthy exert a vastly disproportionate effect on policy. And elite priorities obsessive concern with budget deficits, with the supposed need to slash social programs have done a lot to deepen [wage stagnation and income inequality]."
There is an ongoing debate as to the economic effects of income inequality. For example, Alan B. Krueger, President Obama's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, summarized the conclusions of several research studies in a 2012 speech. In general, as income inequality worsens:
Among economists and related experts, many believe that America's growing income inequality is "deeply worrying", unjust, a danger to democracy/social stability, or a sign of national decline. Yale professor Robert Shiller, who was among three Americans who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2013, said after receiving the award, "The most important problem that we are facing now today, I think, is rising inequality in the United States and elsewhere in the world." Economist Thomas Piketty, who has spent nearly 20 years studying inequality primarily in the US, warns that "The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion, and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century's globalized economy."
On the other side of the issue are those who have claimed that the increase is not significant, that it doesn't matter because America's economic growth and/or equality of opportunity are what's important, that it is a global phenomenon which would be foolish to try to change through US domestic policy, that it "has many economic benefits and is the result of ... a well-functioning economy", and has or may become an excuse for "class-warfare rhetoric", and may lead to policies that "reduce the well-being of wealthier individuals".
Economist Alan B. Krueger wrote in 2012: "The rise in inequality in the United States over the last three decades has reached the point that inequality in incomes is causing an unhealthy division in opportunities, and is a threat to our economic growth. Restoring a greater degree of fairness to the U.S. job market would be good for businesses, good for the economy, and good for the country." Krueger wrote that the significant shift in the share of income accruing to the top 1% over the 1979 to 2007 period represented nearly $1.1 trillion in annual income. Since the wealthy tend to save nearly 50% of their marginal income while the remainder of the population saves roughly 10%, other things equal this would reduce annual consumption (the largest component of GDP) by as much as 5%. Krueger wrote that borrowing likely helped many households make up for this shift, which became more difficult in the wake of the 20072009 recession.
Inequality in land and income ownership is negatively correlated with subsequent economic growth. A strong demand for redistribution will occur in societies where a large section of the population does not have access to the productive resources of the economy. Rational voters must internalize such issues. High unemployment rates have a significant negative effect when interacting with increases in inequality. Increasing inequality harms growth in countries with high levels of urbanization. High and persistent unemployment also has a negative effect on subsequent long-run economic growth. Unemployment may seriously harm growth because it is a waste of resources, because it generates redistributive pressures and distortions, because it depreciates existing human capital and deters its accumulation, because it drives people to poverty, because it results in liquidity constraints that limit labor mobility, and because it erodes individual self-esteem and promotes social dislocation, unrest and conflict. Policies to control unemployment and reduce its inequality-associated effects can strengthen long-run growth.
Concern extends even to such supporters (or former supporters) of laissez-faire economics and private sector financiers. Former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, has stated reference to growing inequality: "This is not the type of thing which a democratic society a capitalist democratic society can really accept without addressing." Some economists (David Moss, Paul Krugman, Raghuram Rajan) believe the "Great Divergence" may be connected to the financial crisis of 2008. Money manager William H. Gross, former managing director of PIMCO, criticized the shift in distribution of income from labor to capital that underlies some of the growth in inequality as unsustainable, saying:
Even conservatives must acknowledge that return on capital investment, and the liquid stocks and bonds that mimic it, are ultimately dependent on returns to labor in the form of jobs and real wage gains. If Main Street is unemployed and undercompensated, capital can only travel so far down Prosperity Road.
He concluded: "Investors/policymakers of the world wake up you're killing the proletariat goose that lays your golden eggs."
Among economists and reports that find inequality harming economic growth are a December 2013 Associated Press survey of three dozen economists', a 2014 report by Standard and Poor's, economists Gar Alperovitz, Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, and Branko Milanovic.
A December 2013 Associated Press survey of three dozen economists found that the majority believe that widening income disparity is harming the US economy. They argue that wealthy Americans are receiving higher pay, but they spend less per dollar earned than middle class consumers, the majority of the population, whose incomes have largely stagnated.
A 2014 report by Standard and Poor's concluded that diverging income inequality has slowed the economic recovery and could contribute to boom-and-bust cycles in the future as more and more Americans take on debt in order to consume. Higher levels of income inequality increase political pressures, discouraging trade, investment, hiring, and social mobility according to the report.
Economists Gar Alperovitz and Robert Reich argue that too much concentration of wealth prevents there being sufficient purchasing power to make the rest of the economy function effectively.
Joseph Stiglitz argues that concentration of wealth and income leads the politically powerful economic elite seek to protect themselves from redistributive policies by weakening the state, and this leads to less public investments by the state roads, technology, education, etc. that are essential for economic growth.
According to economist Branko Milanovic, while traditionally economists thought inequality was good for growth, "The view that income inequality harms growth or that improved equality can help sustain growth has become more widely held in recent years. The main reason for this shift is the increasing importance of human capital in development. When physical capital mattered most, savings and investments were key. Then it was important to have a large contingent of rich people who could save a greater proportion of their income than the poor and invest it in physical capital. But now that human capital is scarcer than machines, widespread education has become the secret to growth." He continued that "Broadly accessible education" is both difficult to achieve when income distribution is uneven and tends to reduce "income gaps between skilled and unskilled labor."
Robert Gordon wrote that such issues as 'rising inequality; factor price equalization stemming from the interplay between globalization and the Internet; the twin educational problems of cost inflation in higher education and poor secondary student performance; the consequences of environmental regulations and taxes..." make economic growth harder to achieve than in the past.
In response to the Occupy movement Richard A. Epstein defended inequality in a free market society, maintaining that "taxing the top one percent even more means less wealth and fewer jobs for the rest of us." According to Epstein, "the inequalities in wealth ... pay for themselves by the vast increases in wealth", while "forced transfers of wealth through taxation ... will destroy the pools of wealth that are needed to generate new ventures. Some researchers have found a connection between lowering high marginal tax rates on high income earners (high marginal tax rates on high income being a common measure to fight inequality), and higher rates of employment growth. Government significant free market strategy affects too. the reason is there is a failure in the US political system to counterbalance the rise in unequal distribution of income amongst the citizens.
Economic sociologist Lane Kenworthy has found no correlation between levels of inequality and economic growth among developed countries, among states of the US, or in the US over the years from 1947 to 2005.Jared Bernstein found a nuanced relation he summed up as follows: "In sum, I'd consider the question of the extent to which higher inequality lowers growth to be an open one, worthy of much deeper research".Tim Worstall commented that capitalism would not seem to contribute to an inherited-wealth stagnation and consolidation, but instead appears to promote the opposite, a vigorous, ongoing turnover and creation of new wealth.
Income inequality was cited as one of the causes of the Great Depression by Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis in 1933. In his dissent in the Louis K. Liggett Co. v. Lee (288 U.S. 517) case, he wrote: "Other writers have shown that, coincident with the growth of these giant corporations, there has occurred a marked concentration of individual wealth; and that the resulting disparity in incomes is a major cause of the existing depression."
Central Banking economist Raghuram Rajan argues that "systematic economic inequalities, within the United States and around the world, have created deep financial 'fault lines' that have made [financial] crises more likely to happen than in the past" the Financial crisis of 200708 being the most recent example. To compensate for stagnating and declining purchasing power, political pressure has developed to extend easier credit to the lower and middle income earners particularly to buy homes and easier credit in general to keep unemployment rates low. This has given the American economy a tendency to go "from bubble to bubble" fueled by unsustainable monetary stimulation.
Greater income inequality can lead to monopolization of the labor force, resulting in fewer employers requiring fewer workers. Remaining employers can consolidate and take advantage of the relative lack of competition, leading to less consumer choice, market abuses, and relatively higher prices.
Income inequality lowers aggregate demand, leading to increasingly large segments of formerly middle class consumers unable to afford as many luxury and essential goods and services. This pushes production and overall employment down.
Deep debt may lead to bankruptcy and researchers Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi found a fivefold increase in the number of families filing for bankruptcy between 1980 and 2005. The bankruptcies came not from increased spending "on luxuries", but from an "increased spending on housing, largely driven by competition to get into good school districts." Intensifying inequality may mean a dwindling number of ever more expensive school districts that compel middle class or would-be middle class to "buy houses they can't really afford, taking on more mortgage debt than they can safely handle".
The ability to move from one income group into another (income mobility) is a means of measuring economic opportunity. A higher probability of upward income mobility theoretically would help mitigate higher income inequality, as each generation has a better chance of achieving higher income groups. Conservatives and libertarians such as economist Thomas Sowell, and Congressman Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) argue that more important than the level of equality of results is America's equality of opportunity, especially relative to other developed countries such as western Europe.
Nonetheless, results from various studies reflect the fact that endogenous regulations and other different rules yield distinct effects on income inequality. A study examines the effects of institutional change on age-based labor market inequalities in Europe. There is a focus on wage-setting institutions on the adult male population and the rate of their unequal income distribution. According to the study, there is evidence that unemployment protection and temporary work regulation affect the dynamics of age-based inequality with positive employment effects of all individuals by the strength of unions. Even though the European Union is within a favorable economic context with perspectives of growth and development, it is also very fragile. 
However, several studies have indicated that higher income inequality corresponds with lower income mobility. In other words, income brackets tend to be increasingly "sticky" as income inequality increases. This is described by a concept called the Great Gatsby curve. In the words of journalist Timothy Noah, "you can't really experience ever-growing income inequality without experiencing a decline in Horatio Alger-style upward mobility because (to use a frequently-employed metaphor) it's harder to climb a ladder when the rungs are farther apart."
The centrist Brookings Institution said in March 2013 that income inequality was increasing and becoming permanent, sharply reducing social mobility in the US. A 2007 study (by Kopczuk, Saez and Song in 2007) found the top population in the United States "very stable" and that income mobility had "not mitigated the dramatic increase in annual earnings concentration since the 1970s."
Economist Paul Krugman, attacks conservatives for resorting to "extraordinary series of attempts at statistical distortion". He argues that while in any given year, some of the people with low incomes will be "workers on temporary layoff, small businessmen taking writeoffs, farmers hit by bad weather" the rise in their income in succeeding years is not the same 'mobility' as poor people rising to middle class or middle income rising to wealth. It's the mobility of "the guy who works in the college bookstore and has a real job by his early thirties."
Studies by the Urban Institute and the US Treasury have both found that about half of the families who start in either the top or the bottom quintile of the income distribution are still there after a decade, and that only 3 to 6% rise from bottom to top or fall from top to bottom.
On the issue of whether most Americans do not stay put in any one income bracket, Krugman quotes from 2011 CBO distribution of income study
Household income measured over a multi-year period is more equally distributed than income measured over one year, although only modestly so. Given the fairly substantial movement of households across income groups over time, it might seem that income measured over a number of years should be significantly more equally distributed than income measured over one year. However, much of the movement of households involves changes in income that are large enough to push households into different income groups but not large enough to greatly affect the overall distribution of income. Multi-year income measures also show the same pattern of increasing inequality over time as is observed in annual measures.
In other words, "many people who have incomes greater than $1 million one year fall out of the category the next year but that's typically because their income fell from, say, $1.05 million to 0.95 million, not because they went back to being middle class."
Several studies have found the ability of children from poor or middle-class families to rise to upper income known as "upward relative intergenerational mobility" is lower in the US than in other developed countries and at least two economists have found lower mobility linked to income inequality.
In their Great Gatsby curve,White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Alan B. Krueger and labor economist Miles Corak show a negative correlation between inequality and social mobility. The curve plotted "intergenerational income elasticity" i.e. the likelihood that someone will inherit their parents' relative position of income level and inequality for a number of countries.
Aside from the proverbial distant rungs, the connection between income inequality and low mobility can be explained by the lack of access for un-affluent children to better (more expensive) schools and preparation for schools crucial to finding high-paying jobs; the lack of health care that may lead to obesity and diabetes and limit education and employment.
Krueger estimates that "the persistence in the advantages and disadvantages of income passed from parents to the children" will "rise by about a quarter for the next generation as a result of the rise in inequality that the U.S. has seen in the last 25 years."
Greater income inequality can increase the poverty rate, as more income shifts away from lower income brackets to upper income brackets. Jared Bernstein wrote: "If less of the economy's market-generated growth i.e., before taxes and transfers kick in ends up in the lower reaches of the income scale, either there will be more poverty for any given level of GDP growth, or there will have to be a lot more transfers to offset inequality's poverty-inducing impact." The Economic Policy Institute estimated that greater income inequality would have added 5.5% to the poverty rate between 1979 and 2007, other factors equal. Income inequality was the largest driver of the change in the poverty rate, with economic growth, family structure, education and race other important factors. An estimated 16% of Americans lived in poverty in 2012, versus 26% in 1967.
A rise in income disparities weakens skills development among people with a poor educational background in term of the quantity and quality of education attained. Those with a low level of expertise will always consider themselves unworthy of any high position and pay
Lisa Shalett, chief investment officer at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management noted that, "for the last two decades and especially in the current period, ... productivity soared ... [but] U.S. real average hourly earnings are essentially flat to down, with today's inflation-adjusted wage equating to about the same level as that attained by workers in 1970. ... So where have the benefits of technology-driven productivity cycle gone? Almost exclusively to corporations and their very top executives." In addition to the technological side of it, the affected functionality emanates from the perceived unfairness and the reduced trust of people towards the state. The study by Kristal and Cohen showed that rising wage inequality has brought about an unhealthy competition between institutions and technology. The technological changes, with computerization of the workplace, seem to give an upper hand to the high-skilled workers as the primary cause of inequality in America. The qualified will always be considered to be in a better position as compared to those dealing with hand work leading to replacements and unequal distribution of resources.
Economist Timothy Smeeding summed up the current trend:
Americans have the highest income inequality in the rich world and over the past 2030 years Americans have also experienced the greatest increase in income inequality among rich nations. The more detailed the data we can use to observe this change, the more skewed the change appears to be ... the majority of large gains are indeed at the top of the distribution.
According to Janet L. Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve,
...from 1973 to 2005, real hourly wages of those in the 90th percentile where most people have college or advanced degrees rose by 30% or more... among this top 10 percent, the growth was heavily concentrated at the very tip of the top, that is, the top 1 percent. This includes the people who earn the very highest salaries in the U.S. economy, like sports and entertainment stars, investment bankers and venture capitalists, corporate attorneys, and CEOs. In contrast, at the 50th percentile and below where many people have at most a high school diploma real wages rose by only 5 to 10% 
Economists Jared Bernstein and Paul Krugman have attacked the concentration of income as variously "unsustainable" and "incompatible" with real democracy. American political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson quote a warning by Greek-Roman historian Plutarch: "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." Some academic researchers have written that the US political system risks drifting towards a form of oligarchy, through the influence of corporations, the wealthy, and other special interest groups.
Rising income inequality has been linked to the political polarization in Washington DC. According to a 2013 study published in the Political Research Quarterly, elected officials tend to be more responsive to the upper income bracket and ignore lower income groups.
Paul Krugman wrote in November 2014 that: "The basic story of political polarization over the past few decades is that, as a wealthy minority has pulled away economically from the rest of the country, it has pulled one major party along with it...Any policy that benefits lower- and middle-income Americans at the expense of the elite like health reform, which guarantees insurance to all and pays for that guarantee in part with taxes on higher incomes will face bitter Republican opposition." He used environmental protection as another example, which was not a partisan issue in the 1990s but has since become one.
As income inequality has increased, the degree of House of Representatives polarization measured by voting record has also increased. The voting is mostly by the rich and for the rich making it hard to achieve equal income and resource distribution for the average population (Bonica et al., 2013). There is a little number of people who turn to government insurance with the rising wealth and real income since they consider inequality within the different government sectors. Additionally, there has been an increased influence by the rich on the regulatory, legislative and electoral processes within the country that has led to improved employment standards for the bureaucrats and politicians. Professors McCarty, Pool and Rosenthal wrote in 2007 that polarization and income inequality fell in tandem from 1913 to 1957 and rose together dramatically from 1977 on. They show that Republicans have moved politically to the right, away from redistributive policies that would reduce income inequality. Polarization thus creates a feedback loop, worsening inequality.
Several economists and political scientists have argued that economic inequality translates into political inequality, particularly in situations where politicians have financial incentives to respond to special interest groups and lobbyists. Researchers such as Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University have shown that politicians are significantly more responsive to the political opinions of the wealthy, even when controlling for a range of variables including educational attainment and political knowledge.
Historically, discussions of income inequality and capital vs. labor debates have sometimes included the language of class warfare, from President Theodore Roosevelt (referring to the leaders of big corporations as "malefactors of great wealth"), to President Franklin Roosevelt ("economic royalists...are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred"), to more the recent "1% versus the 99%" issue and the question of which political party better represents the interests of the middle class.
Investor Warren Buffett said in 2006 that: "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning." He advocated much higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, who pay lower effective tax rates than many middle-class persons.
Two journalists concerned about social separation in the US are economist Robert Frank, who notes that: "Today's rich had formed their own virtual country .. [T]hey had built a self-contained world unto themselves, complete with their own health-care system (concierge doctors), travel network (Net jets, destination clubs), separate economy...The rich weren't just getting richer; they were becoming financial foreigners, creating their own country within a country, their own society within a society, and their economy within an economy.
George Packer wrote that "Inequality hardens society into a class system ... Inequality divides us from one another in schools, in neighborhoods, at work, on airplanes, in hospitals, in what we eat, in the condition of our bodies, in what we think, in our children's futures, in how we die. Inequality makes it harder to imagine the lives of others.
Even these class levels can affect the politics in certain ways. There has been an increased influence by the rich on the regulatory, legislative and electoral processes within the country that has led to improved employment standards for the bureaucrats and politicians. They have a greater influence through their lobbying and contributions that give them an opportunity to immerse wealth for themselves.
Loss of income by the middle class relative to the top-earning 1% and 0.1% is both a cause and effect of political change, according to journalist Hedrick Smith. In the decade starting around 2000, business groups employed 30 times as many Washington lobbyists as trade unions and 16 times as many lobbyists as labor, consumer, and public interest lobbyists combined.
From 1998 through 2010 business interests and trade groups spent $28.6 billion on lobbying compared with $492 million for labor, nearly a 60-to-1 business advantage.
The result, according to Smith, is a political landscape dominated in the 1990s and 2000s by business groups, specifically "political insiders" former members of Congress and government officials with an inside track working for "Wall Street banks, the oil, defense, and pharmaceutical industries; and business trade associations." In the decade or so prior to the Great Divergence, middle-class-dominated reformist grassroots efforts such as civil rights movement, environmental movement, consumer movement, labor movement had considerable political impact.
"We haven't achieved the minimalist state that libertarians advocate. What we've achieved is a state too constrained to provide the public goods investments in infrastructure, technology, and education that would make for a vibrant economy and too weak to engage in the redistribution that is needed to create a fair society. But we have a state that is still large enough and distorted enough that it can provide a bounty of gifts to the wealthy."
Economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that hyper-inequality may explain political questions such as why America's infrastructure (and other public investments) are deteriorating, or the country's recent relative lack of reluctance to engage in military conflicts such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Top-earning families, wealthy enough to buy their own education, medical care, personal security, and parks, have little interest in helping pay for such things for the rest of society, and the political influence to make sure they don't have to. So too, the lack of personal or family sacrifice involved for top earners in the military intervention of their country their children being few and far between in the relatively low-paying all-volunteer military may mean more willingness by influential wealthy to see its government wage war.
Economist Branko Milanovic argued that globalization and the related competition with cheaper labor from Asia and immigrants have caused U.S. middle-class wages to stagnate, fueling the rise of populist political candidates such as Donald Trump.
The relatively high rates of health and social problems, (obesity, mental illness, homicides, teenage births, incarceration, child conflict, drug use) and lower rates of social goods (life expectancy, educational performance, trust among strangers, women's status, social mobility, even numbers of patents issued per capita), in the US compared to other developed countries may be related to its high income inequality. Using statistics from 23 developed countries and the 50 states of the US, British researchers Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have found such a correlation which remains after accounting for ethnicity, national culture, and occupational classes or education levels. Their findings, based on UN Human Development Reports and other sources, locate the United States at the top of the list in regards to inequality and various social and health problems among developed countries. The authors argue inequality creates psychosocial stress and status anxiety that lead to social ills. A 2009 study conducted by researchers at Harvard University and published in the British Medical Journal attribute one in three deaths in the United States to high levels of inequality. According to The Earth Institute, life satisfaction in the US has been declining over the last several decades, which has been attributed to soaring inequality, lack of social trust and loss of faith in government.
It is claimed in a 2015 study by Princeton University researchers Angus Deaton and Anne Case that income inequality could be a driving factor in a marked increase in deaths among white males between the ages of 45 to 54 in the period 1999 to 2013.
Paul Krugman argues that the much lamented long-term funding problems of Social Security and Medicare can be blamed in part on the growth in inequality as well as the usual culprits like longer life expectancies. The traditional source of funding for these social welfare programs payroll taxes is inadequate because it does not capture income from capital, and income above the payroll tax cap, which make up a larger and larger share of national income as inequality increases.
Upward redistribution of income is responsible for about 43% of the projected Social Security shortfall over the next 75 years.
Disagreeing with this focus on the top-earning 1%, and urging attention to the economic and social pathologies of lower-income/lower education Americans, is conservative journalist David Brooks. Whereas in the 1970s, high school and college graduates had "very similar family structures", today, high school grads are much less likely to get married and be active in their communities, and much more likely to smoke, be obese, get divorced, or have "a child out of wedlock."
The zooming wealth of the top one percent is a problem, but it's not nearly as big a problem as the tens of millions of Americans who have dropped out of high school or college. It's not nearly as big a problem as the 40 percent of children who are born out of wedlock. It's not nearly as big a problem as the nation's stagnant human capital, its stagnant social mobility and the disorganized social fabric for the bottom 50 percent.
Contradicting most of these arguments, classical liberals such as Friedrich Hayek have maintained that because individuals are diverse and different, state intervention to redistribute income is inevitably arbitrary and incompatible with the concept of general rules of law, and that "what is called 'social' or distributive' justice is indeed meaningless within a spontaneous order". Those who would use the state to redistribute, "take freedom for granted and ignore the preconditions necessary for its survival."
The growth of inequality has provoked a political protest movement the Occupy movement starting in Wall Street and spreading to 600 communities across the United States in 2011. Its main political slogan "We are the 99%" references its dissatisfaction with the concentration of income in the top 1%.
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