The Truth About Income Inequality

“On a global scale, inequality is declining. While it has increased within the United States, it has not grown nearly as much as people often claim. The American poor and middle class have been gaining ground, and the much-touted disappearance of the middle class has happened mainly because the ranks of the people above the middle class have swollen. And while substantially raising tax rates on higher-income people is often touted as a fix for inequality, it would probably hurt lower-income people as well as the wealthy. The same goes for a tax on wealth.

Most important: Not all income inequality is bad. Inequality emerges in more than one way, some of it justifiable, some of it not. Most of what is framed as a problem of inequality is better conceived as either a problem of poverty or a problem of unjustly acquired wealth.”

“The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produced a report in November 2018 on the growth of household income in each of five quintiles. Between 1979 and 2015, average real income for people in the top fifth of the population rose by 101 percent, while it rose for people in the bottom quintile by “only” 32 percent. For the middle three quintiles, average real income increased by 32 percent as well.

Or at least those are the numbers if you ignore the effects of taxes and direct government transfers. But you really shouldn’t leave those out: If you’re debating whether to increase taxes on the rich and transfers to the poor, it seems important to take into account the taxation and safety net already in place. Once the CBO researchers subtracted taxes and added welfare, Social Security, and so on, the picture changed dramatically for the lowest quintile: Income rose by 79 percent. (For the middle three quintiles, it increased by 46 percent. For the highest quintile, it went up by 103 percent—slightly more than before, probably thanks to Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s tax cuts.)”

“That’s still an increase in income inequality, of course. But it’s not an inequality increase in which the poor and near-poor are worse off. They’re much better off. Everyone is.”