Politicians, researchers, and the media have given a good deal of attention recently to widening income inequality. Yet very few have paid attention to how—and how well—we measure income. Different measures of income show very different results on whether and how much inequality has risen. Without clarity, even honest and non-ideological public and private efforts to address inequality will fall short of their mark—and, in some cases, exacerbate inequality further.
How we typically measure income
Income measures tell different stories about opportunity and can be useful for different purposes. Some studies on income inequality measure income before government transfers and taxes—for instance, studies that compare workers’ earnings over time. Studies of the distribution of wealth or capital income, too, typically exclude any entitlement to government benefits. These “market” measures capture how much individuals have gained or lost in their returns from work and saving.
More comprehensive measures examine income after transfers and taxes. Transfers include Social Security, SNAP (formerly food stamps), cash welfare, and the earned income tax credit. Taxes include income and Social Security taxes. These measures best capture individuals’ net income and what living standards they can maintain, but not their financial independence or how much they are sharing directly in the rewards of the market.
Within both sets of measures (pre-tax, pre-transfer and post-tax, post-transfer), most studies still exclude a great deal. Health care often fails to be counted, even though increases in real health costs and benefits now take up about one-third of all per-capita income growth. Most of these health benefits come from government health plans (like Medicare and Medicaid) or employer-provided health insurance. Households pay directly for only a minor share of health costs, so they often don’t think about improved health care as a source of income growth.
How improving our definition of income—and using alternative measures—sharpens our view of income inequality
Starting with a more comprehensive measure of income, and then breaking out components, can improve our understanding of income inequality and its sources. As an example, let’s use some recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates, which provide perhaps the most comprehensive measure of household market incomes (consisting of labor, business, capital, and retirement income), then add the value of government transfers and subtract the value of federal taxes.
Between 1979 and 2011, the average market incomes—that is, incomes before taxes and transfers—of the richest 20 percent of the population (or the top income quintile) grew from 20 times to 30 times the incomes of the poorest 20 percent (the bottom income quintile).
When examining income after taxes and transfers, however, the relationship between the top and bottom income quintiles is more stable. It starts at a ratio of about 5.5:1 in 1979 and increases very slightly to 6:1 by 2011.
We find somewhat similar trends when comparing the fourth quintile with the second quintile. After taxes and transfers, income ratios don’t change much over this period, though the market-based measures of income show increased inequality. Of course, the very top 1 percent still has gained significantly; in 2011 it had nearly 33 times the income of the bottom 20 percent, compared with about 19 times in 1979.
What’s still missing
Even the CBO measures, however, are far from comprehensive. They exclude many benefits that are harder to measure or distribute, such as the returns from homeownership and the value of public goods like highways, parks, and fire protection. As Steve Rose points out, even more elusive are the broadly shared gains in living standards brought by improved technology and new inventions.
Why getting it right matters
Though defining income may seem like merely a technical exercise, it has huge consequences. Inequality has always been a political football: all sides tend to quote statistics that support their policy stances while ignoring the statistics refuting them. Yet if we want good policy, we’ve got to be open to how well any particular policy might improve income equality by one measure or make it worse by another, often at the same time. This is not a new story: bad or misleading information almost inevitably leads to bad policy.
This column first appeared on MetroTrends.
The 50th anniversary of “the March on Washington”—so famous and, in many ways, so successful that “the” is sufficient to define it—brought forth a gusto of stories about what had been achieved since then, including some very interesting blog posts by my colleagues. Several turned to data on the distribution of wealth, including some studies in which I participated, noting the lack of gains—especially in the past few decades—in the wealth and income of blacks and Hispanics relative to whites.
Those aggregate, raw figures on wealth and income act as a form of performance test on one aspect of government policy. They state rather emphatically that, whatever its merits, such policy was not sufficient to move the needle on wealth mobility across and among racial and other classes. Some simply draw the conclusion that we must redouble our efforts on programs that they have favored for a long time. Spend more on Medicare or Medicaid or cut tax rates or whatever. But what if that focus is wrong? What if the dominant liberal and conservative agendas over the past 50 years, at least when it came to social policy and taxes, never really had much to with mobility? What if the data compel us to adopt more dynamic, yet realistic, policies that put mobility and opportunity more at the forefront of policy in the 21st century?
Over these past few decades, liberal agendas have focused largely on the positive effects of ensuring that people had adequate income, food, health care, and so on—that is, consumption. Conservative agendas have focused largely on the negative effects of high income tax rates, particularly at the top of the income distribution. Often raising legitimate concerns about poverty or incentives, respectively, in many ways, each side has won its battle. Redistributive and other social welfare policies now dominate the $55,000 in federal, state and local spending, including tax subsidies, now spent on average per household, while tax rates at the top tend to be about half what they were from World War II to the early 1960s.
Relative to 50 years ago, fewer people are without food or food assistance, people can now retire on Social Security for many more years, health care has become far more life-sustaining, more people go to college, and, while economic growth hasn’t been great lately, we’re still about three times richer than we were. So the record isn’t all that bad, despite current travails. But, once again, those successes largely did not carry over to mobility among and across classes.
Here are just a few examples of how policies have given limited attention to mobility:
- Current welfare policy helps feed and house people, but it often discourages work by imposing very high costs on moderate-income households with children, as they can lose hundreds of dollars of benefits for each $1,000 they earn.
- Even while single parenthood remains a major source of poverty for many, that same welfare policy now penalizes—on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars—low-income couples with children who decide to get or remain married.
- Although investing in quality early childhood education appears to have a high payoff, the means testing of Head Start and other programs re-segregates our schools, with poorer kids often clustered together in classrooms separate from middle-class kids.
- Housing rental subsidies help people live in decent housing, but they also discourage home-buying and paying off a mortgage along the way, keeping lower-income families away from that classic and, for large segments of the population, most important mechanism for saving.
- Our retirement policies help most Americans live their later years in some comfort. But by encouraging early retirement, Social Security and other programs lead to an increased wealth gap among the elderly as richer classes retire later—hence, work and save longer—than poorer classes.
- Low tax rates may encourage entrepreneurship, but when they don’t raise enough revenue to pay our bills, they add to interest costs on the debt, gradually eroding support for investments in people, education, and similar efforts.
It’s not that liberals and conservatives advocating these older agendas don’t care about mobility. They’ll tell you that people with more sustenance will be able to work and study harder and entrepreneurs facing lower tax rates will create more jobs. But they try to claim too much for agendas that, though successful on some fronts, did not improve mobility in recent decades. The proof is in the pudding.
Raising these issues threatens those who fear that acknowledging failure on any front merely empowers those who advocate for the opposing agenda. And in today’s chaos that passes for policymaking, that is probably true. I don’t even know in what galaxy to place debates over previously nonpartisan issues like extending the debt ceiling so Congress can pay off its bills.
For me, it isn’t about abandoning the past. It’s simply about moving on.
Worried about the stagnation of income among middle-income households? Or about the growth in health care costs? The two are not unrelated. In fact, middle-income families have witnessed far more growth than the change in their cash incomes suggest if we count the better health insurance most receive from employers or government. But is that all good news? Should ever-increasing shares of the income that Americans receive from government in retirement and other transfer payments go directly to hospitals and doctors as opposed to other needs of beneficiaries? Should workers receive ever-smaller shares of compensation in the form of cash?
The stagnation of cash incomes in the middle of the income distribution now goes back over three decades. Consider the period from 1980 to 2011. Cash income per member of a median income household, which includes items like wages and interest and cash payments from government like Social Security, only grew by about $4,300 or 27 percent over that period, when adjusted for inflation. From 2000 to 2010, it was even negative. Yet according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita personal income—our most comprehensive measure of individual income—grew 72 percent from 1980 to 2011.
How do we reconcile these statistics? By disentangling the many pieces that go into each measure.
Growing income inequality certainly plays a big part in this story: much of the growth in either cash or total personal income was garnered by those with very high incomes. So the growth in average income, no matter how measured, is substantially higher than the growth for a typical or median person who shared much less than proportionately in those gains. But personal income also includes many items that simply don’t show up in the cash income measures. Among them is the provision of noncash government benefits, such as various forms of food assistance.
Health care plays no small role. In fact, real national health care expenditures per person grew by 223 percent or $6,150 from 1980 to 2011, much more than the growth in median cash income. If we assume that the median-income household member got about the average amount of health care and insurance, then we can see how little their increased cash income tells them or us about their higher standard of living.
Getting a bit more technical, there’s a danger of over-counting and under-counting health care costs here. Some of the median or typical person’s additional cash income went to extra health care expenses, so the additional amount he/she had left for all other purposes was even less than $4,300. However, individuals pay only a small share of their health care expenses; the vast majority is covered by government, employer, or other third-party payments. So, roughly speaking, typical or median individuals still got well more than half of their income growth in the form of health benefits.
The implications stretch well beyond middle-class stagnation. Employers face rising pressures to drop insurance so they can provide higher cash wages. For instance, providing a decent health insurance package to a family can be equivalent roughly to a doubling of employer costs for a worker paid minimum wage. The government, in turn, faces a different squeeze: as it allocates ever-larger shares of its social welfare budget for health care, it grants smaller shares to education, wage subsidies, child tax credits, and most other efforts. Additionally, the more expensive the health care the government provides to those who don’t work, the greater the incentives for them to retire earlier or remain unemployed.
In the end, the health care juggernaut leaves us with good news (that our incomes indeed are growing moderately faster than most headlines would have us believe) as well as bad news (that health care remains unmerciful in what it increasingly takes out of our budget).
While the income inequality among different racial and ethnic groups is significant, it is nothing compared to wealth inequality. In 2010, whites had six times more average wealth than blacks and Hispanics ($632,000 versus $103,000). The income gap, by comparison, was twofold ($89,000 versus $46,000).
In a recent study, several colleagues and I examine in more depth how these ratios are affected by wealth accumulation over a person’s lifetime. Early in wealth-building years (when adults are in their 30s), white families have 3.5 to 4 times the wealth of families of color. As adults age these initial racial differences grow both absolutely and relatively. Whites in the cohort we examined started with about three and a half times more wealth than blacks in their 30s but had seven times more wealth in their 60s. Compared with Hispanics, whites had four times more wealth in their 30s but nearly five times more wealth three decades later.
Or consider how ratios would vary if each family saved the same share of its income and earned the same rate of return on those savings. Ignoring inheritances, the wealth gap should resemble the income gap, not be three times as large.
While the Great Recession didn’t cause the wealth disparities between whites and minorities, it did exacerbate them. The 2007–09 economic slowdown brought about sharp declines in the wealth of white, black, and Hispanic families alike, but Hispanics experienced the largest decline. Lower net equity in homes accounts for much of Hispanics’ wealth loss, while retirement accounts are where blacks were hit hardest.
Something is definitely going on. Whatever other conclusions one may draw, I think our tax and social policies are doing a pretty poor job of helping individuals attain the types of protections that private wealth-holding offers. In fact, wealth disparities among races have expanded over the past 27 years, which should have liberals and conservatives alike questioning the unintended consequences of their policy victories, or at least their policy focus, over that period.
For more analysis of the wealth gap between whites and minorities, read the brief Less Than Equal: Racial Disparities in Wealth Accumulation or watch The Racial Wealth Gap in America. This work has been cited in the New York Times.
My colleagues and I recently published research showing that younger age groups are falling behind their parents in wealth accumulation and explaining the story behind our numbers. Some have raised questions about how we use our data, and I want to take some time to further explain our research.
Our study shows that the average wealth, or net worth, of these younger age groups has fallen fairly dramatically relative to older age groups. In response, some have said that median wealth is more important than average wealth. In fact, both are important. Average wealth tells us how a group is prospering as a whole relative to other groups; median wealth tells us how some “typical” person might be doing. One complication with focusing on median wealth is that it doesn’t show where all the remaining wealth goes. In a similar vein, if you were studying small business ownership by age or race, the median value might be zero for all groups. The average values would be greater than zero and thus would allow comparisons by groups.
Consider the median household age 56–64 in 2010. True, it is only slightly richer than the median household of a similar age in 1983 ($179,400 versus $143,150). Still, the median household age 29–37 in 1983 had $46,234 in wealth, but the median household in that age group in 2010 had only $15,900, less than half compared to their parents.
Median and average net worth by age is reported here. Come to your own conclusion.
Another footnote: Our study did not look at the decline in defined benefit wealth. However, the availability of such wealth has declined more for younger than older groups. Moreover, the valuation of defined benefits and annuities goes up for those who have them when interest rates go down. Older individuals with more defined benefit wealth technically saw the value of wealth go up after the Great Recession.
You can slice and dice these data in many ways, but the empirical data speak for themselves: younger age groups have fallen behind in relative terms. All sorts of factors are involved: the Great Recession and its impact on housing, student debt, wages, and so forth. Each is worthy of our attention.
The young have been faring poorly in the job market for some time now, a condition only exacerbated by the Great Recession. Now comes disturbing news that they are also falling behind in their share of society’s wealth and their rate of wealth accumulation.
Signe Mary McKernan, Caroline Ratcliffe, Sisi Zhang, and I recently examined how different age groups have shared in the rising net wealth of the U.S. economy. Despite the recent recession, our economy in 2010 was about twice as rich both in terms of average incomes and net worth as it was 27 years earlier in 1983. But not everyone shared equally in that growth.
Younger generations have been particularly left behind. Roughly speaking, those under age 46 today, generally the Gen X and Gen Y cohorts, hadn’t accumulated any more wealth by the time they reached their 30s and 40s than their parents did over a quarter-century ago. By way of contrast, baby boomers and other older generations, or those over age 46, shared in the rising economy—they approximately doubled their net worth.
Older Generations Accumulate, Younger Generations Stagnate
Change in Average Net Worth by Age Group, 1983–2010
Source: Authors’ tabulations of the 1983, 1989, 1992, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, and 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF).
Notes: All dollar values are presented in 2010 dollars and data are weighted using SCF weights. The comparison is between people of the same age in 1983 and 2010.
Households usually add to their saving as they age, while income and wealth rise over time with economic growth. If these two patterns apply consistently and proportionately, then one might expect to see, say, a parent generation accumulate $100,000 by the time its members were in their 30s and $300,000 in their 60s, whereas their children might accumulate $200,000 by their 30s and $600,000 by their 60s.
This normal pattern no longer holds for the younger among us. However, this reversal didn’t just start with the Great Recession; it seems to have begun even before the turn of the century. The young increasingly have been left behind.
Potential causes are many. The Great Recession hit housing hard, but it particularly affected the young, who were more likely to have the largest balances on their loans and the least equity relative to their home values. If a house value fell 20 percent, a younger owner with 20 percent equity would lose 100 percent in housing net worth, whereas an older owner with the mortgage paid off would witness a drop of only 20 percent.
As for the stock market, it has provided very low returns over recent years, but those who hung on through the Great Recession had most of their net worth restored to pre-recession values. Bondholders usually came out ahead by the time the recession ended as interest rates fell and underlying bonds often increased in value. Also making out well were those with annuities from defined benefit pension plans and Social Security, whose values increase when interest rates fall (though the data noted above exclude those gains in asset values). Older generations hold a much higher percentage of their portfolios in assets that have recovered or appreciated since the Great Recession.
As I mentioned earlier, however, the tendency for lesser wealth accumulation among the younger generations has been occurring for some time, so the special hit they took in the Great Recession leaves out much of the story. Here we must search for other answers to the question of why the young have been falling behind. Likely candidates for their relatively worse status, many of which are correlated, include
- a lower rate of employment when in the workforce;
- delayed entry into the workforce and into periods of accumulating saving;
reduced relative pay, partly due to their first-time-ever lack of any higher educational achievement relative to past generations;
- their delayed family formation, usually a harbinger and motivator of thrift and homebuilding;
- lower relative minimum wages; and
- higher shares of compensation taken out to pay for Social Security and health care, with less left over to save.
When it comes to conventional wisdom and media attention to distributional issues, there’s a tendency simply to attribute any particular disparity, such as the young falling behind in wealth holdings, to the growth in wealth inequality in society. But the two need not be correlated. Disparities can grow within both younger and older generations, without the young necessarily falling behind as a group.
Whatever the causes, we should also remember that public policy now places increased burdens on the young, whether in ever-higher interest payments on federal debts they will be left or the political exemption of older generations from paying for their underfunded retirement and health benefits. At the same time, state and local governments have given education lower priority in their budgets; pension plans for government workers now grant reduced and sometimes zero net benefits to new, younger hires; and homeownership subsidies post-recession increasingly favor the haves over the more risky have-nots.
Maybe, more than just maybe, it’s time to think about investing in the young.