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What Rising Income Inequality?  The Rest of the Story

What Rising Income Inequality? The Rest of the Story

| October 15, 2018
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Last week, I presented some charts and commentary from Mark Perry’s economics blog that he posted on September 12.  The next day, he presented his annual post titled: “Explaining US Income Inequality by Household Demographics, 2017 Update” based on the annual Census Bureau Report “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017”.  As in previous years, he compiles the household income and demographic data in a chart (below) in the form of quintiles.

 

 

Mr. Perry goes on to provide commentary on the findings and summarizes some of the key demographic characteristics of U.S. households by income quintiles (five equal groups of households) for 2017 as follows:

“Bottom Line: Household demographics, including the average number of earners per household and the marital status, age, and education of householders are all very highly correlated with household income. Specifically, high-income households have a greater average number of income-earners than households in lower-income quintiles, and individuals in high-income households are far more likely than individuals in low-income households to be well-educated, married, working full-time, and in their prime earning years. In contrast, individuals in lower-income households are far more likely than their counterparts in higher-income households to be less-educated, working part-time, either very young (under 35 years) or very old (over 65 years), and living in single-parent or single households.

The good news is that the key demographic factors that explain differences in household income are not fixed over our lifetimes and are largely under our control (e.g., staying in school and graduating, getting and staying married, working full-time, etc.), which means that individuals and households are not destined to remain in a single income quintile forever. Fortunately, studies that track people over time indicate that individuals and households move up and down the income quintiles over their lifetimes, as the key demographic variables highlighted above change, see related CD posts here, here and here. And Thomas Sowell pointed out in one of his syndicated columns in March 2013 “Economic Mobility” that:

“Most working Americans who were initially in the bottom 20% of income-earners, rise out of that bottom 20%. More of them end up in the top 20% than remain in the bottom 20%. People who were initially in the bottom 20% in income have had the highest rate of increase in their incomes, while those who were initially in the top 20% have had the lowest. This is the direct opposite of the pattern found when following income brackets over time, rather than following individual people.”

MP: It’s highly likely that most of today’s high-income, college-educated, married individuals who are now in their peak earning years were in a lower-income quintile in their prior, single, younger years before they acquired education and job experience. It’s also likely that individuals in today’s top income quintiles will move back down to a lower income quintile in the future during their retirement years, which is just part of the natural lifetime cycle of moving up and down the income quintiles for most Americans. So when we hear the media and progressives talk about an “income inequality crisis” in America, we should keep in mind that basic household demographics go a long way towards explaining the differences in household income in the United States. And because the key income-determining demographic variables are largely under our control and change dynamically over our lifetimes, income mobility and the American dream are still “alive and well” in the US.”

There is another chart (see below) from Mr. Perry’s September 12 blog that is very revealing.  It emphasizes that, while the “middle class” may be decreasing in size, it is because they are moving up, not down.

 

 

“The chart above represents what might be one of the most important findings in the new Census data and confirms a trend I’ve highlighted many times before. Yes, the “middle-class is disappearing” as we hear all the time, but it’s because middle-income households in the US are gradually moving up to higher income groups, and not down into lower-income groups. In 1967, only 9% of US households (only 1 in 11) earned $100,000 or more (in 2017 dollars). Last year, more than 1 in 4 US households (29.2%) were in that high-income category, a new record high. In other words, over the last half-century, the share of US households earning incomes of $100,000 or more (in 2017 dollars) has more than tripled! At the same time, the share of middle-income households earning $35,000 to $100,000 (in 2017 dollars) has decreased over time, from more than half of US households in 1967 (53.8%) to less than half (only 41.3%) in 2017. Likewise, the share of low-income households earning $35,000 or less (in 2017 dollars) has decreased from more than one-third of households in 1967 (37.2%) to below one-third of US households last year (29.5%), a near-record low.”

“Bottom Line: Here are some of the key takeaways from the new Census report on US incomes through 2017:

  • The 1.8% gain in real median US household income last year brought median income to more than $61,000, the highest level ever recorded.
  • The income gain in 2017 was the fifth annual increase and the first period of five consecutive increases in median household income since the late 1990s.
  • Compared to 1975, the typical US household today has $12,464 more annual income (in 2017 dollars) or more than $1,000 more per month in real, inflation-adjusted dollars to spend on goods and services, many of which have become much more affordable today than in the 1970s (or weren’t even available then).
  • Adjusted for household size, which has been falling over time, real median household income per household member last year of $24,160 (in 2017 dollars) was the highest in history.
  • Real median income for married couples with both spouses working reached a new all-time record high last year of $111,000 and has more than doubled from $54,700 in 1963.
  • By three different measures — income shares of the top 5% and 20% and the Gini coefficient — there is no evidence of a significant rise in income inequality over the last 25 years; all three measures have been remarkably flat for more than two decades.
  • The share of US households with incomes of $100,000 or more (in 2017 dollars) reached a new record high of 29.2% last year, which is more than triple the share of households in 1967 with that level of income. At the same time, the share of US low-income households (real incomes of $35,000 or below) fell to a near-record low of 29.5%.
  • America’s middle-class is disappearing but into higher, not lower, income categories over time.”

As you know, I am not an economist, but read a lot of economic news, much of it government statistics, and all from independent economists without political agenda or bias.  It has been said of the media that they should not let the facts get in the way of a good story.  While that may, or may not, be an accurate description of their methodology, I hope you appreciate knowing the unvarnished facts.

I appreciate your time and attention.  If you have any questions or comments, please give me a call.

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Until next time, cheers!

Jim

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