The Wealth Inequality Mirage

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WASHINGTON-While most Americans are concerned about the country's high unemployment rate, a few elitists seek to use it as a pretext for their leveling agenda. Whether the country is prosperous or struggling to climb out of recession, as now, they complain about an economic inequality that they exaggerate.

These "levelers" care more about equal outcomes than equal opportunity. They misunderstand the dynamic of the American economy. Their "remedies" would do more harm than good.

Chief among them is Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. A few days ago, in a radio interview on National Public Radio, he said this:

"Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have in this country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had."

Mr. Reich is wrong. He and other levelers exaggerate economic inequality, eagerly, because they rely on pretax income, which omits the 97% of federal income taxes paid by the top half of income earners and the many "transfer payments," such as food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare. This exaggerated portrait of inequality undergirds the present effort by the Democrats to raise income tax rates for people with taxable incomes of $209,000 a year on joint returns and $171,000 a year on single returns.

A more meaningful measure of inequality comes from an examination of spending. On Wednesday the Labor Department presented 2009 data on consumer spending, based on income quintiles, or fifths. This analysis shows that economic inequality has not increased, contrary to what the levelers contend.

Differences in per-person spending from the lowest income fifth to the highest are not dramatically different from 20 years ago. These measures of spending show less inequality than do measures of income.

These data are important because the mirage of expanding income inequality is being touted by some Democrats as an excuse for tax increases on upper-income people, and to justify to Americans a European-style social contract of higher government spending and taxes.

That's the main battle between Republicans and Democrats in the November 2 congressional election. Republicans want to keep current tax rates to encourage businesses to expand and hire workers. Democrats want to raise taxes for the top two brackets, and point to rising income inequality as justification.

The Democrats say they would use the additional tax revenue to shrink the budget deficit, but inevitably some of that additional revenue would be spent on programs that redistribute income.

The Labor Department data, which are published every year, track spending by income group. Spending is vital because it determines our current standard of living and our confidence in the future. It shows how much purchasing power Americans have. The usual pretax measures of income, on which most inequality studies are based, don't show how much purchasing power some Americans have because they omit other benefits, and so don't provide an accurate measure of purchasing power inequality.

Further, income quintiles have different demographic characteristics, so comparisons of quintiles can be misleading. In 2009, households in the lowest fifth had an average of 1.7 people, and in half these households there were no earners. The highest fifth, however, had 3.1 persons per household, with 2.0 earners.

Household size at the bottom has been shrinking faster than at the top, adding to a false perception of inequality. Over the past 20 years, the size of households in the bottom quintile has declined by 5.6% and the middle quintile by 3.8%, whereas the size of the top-quintile household has been unchanged. This is due not only to the increased longevity of today's seniors, but also to the higher numbers of divorced couples and single-parent households.

Calculating spending on a per-person basis (these are my calculations, from the official data) produces comparable measures. The average annual spending for a household in the lowest quintile was $21,611, or $12,712 per person. In contrast, the average spending for a household in the top quintile was $94,244, or $30,401 per person.

On a per person basis, the new Labor Department numbers show that in 2009 households in the top fifth of the income distribution spent 2.4 times the amount spent by the bottom quintile. That, Professor Reich might note, was about the same as 20 years ago. The top quintile spent 1.8 times what the middle quintile spent per person. And that ratio has not been increasing.

On a per person basis, those in the bottom group spent 2.8% less in real terms in 2009 than in 2008 due to the recession. In contrast, those in the top quintile spent 0.6% more, and those in the middle quintile spent 0.7% more.

But compared with 1989, the big winners are the lowest-income group, which spent 9.1% more per person in constant dollars. In contrast, the highest group spent 2.6% more, and the middle group increased its spending by 1.1%.

Income and spending do not tell the whole story about how well Americans are doing. A higher percentage of low-income Americans own their homes free of mortgage debt than do upper-income Americans. Twenty-six percent of households in the lowest income group and 31% in the next-to-lowest group owned their homes debt- free in 2009, compared to 27% in the middle quintile and 18% in the top quintile. There are more seniors in the lower two quintiles, and many have paid off their homes.

Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work. They and their families simply want a chance to work, a hope that tomorrow will bring better employment prospects than today. The two major political parties have diametrically opposed policy prescriptions to appeal to Americans in search of a better tomorrow.

The choice is clear. One party offers lower taxes and less regulation as a means to allow businesses to expand and hire new workers and to make it easier for more Americans to start their own businesses. The other party seeks to punish those who have a job and doubly punish those who employ them.




Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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