The myth of American income inequality
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the most dramatic and consequential change in the distribution of income in America in the past half-century isn’t rising income inequality but the extraordinary growth in income equality among the bottom 60% of household earners.
Real government transfer payments to the bottom 20% of household earners surged by 269% between 1967 and 2017, while middle-income households saw their real earnings after taxes rise by only 154% during the same period. That has largely equalized the income of the bottom 60% of Americans. This government-created equality has caused the labor-force participation rate to collapse among working-age people in low-income households and unleashed a populist realignment that is unraveling the coalition that has dominated American politics since the 1930s.
On these pages, we have debunked the myth that income inequality is extreme and growing on a secular basis by showing that the Census Bureau measure of income fails to include two-thirds of all federal, state and local transfer payments as income to the recipients and fails to treat taxes paid as income lost to the taxpayer. The Census Bureau measure overstates current income inequality between the highest and lowest 20% of earners by more than 300% and claims that income inequality has risen by 21% since 1967, when in fact it has fallen by 3%. …
In the bottom quintile, there are on average only 1.92 people living in a household. The second and middle quintiles have 2.41 and 2.62 people respectively. After adjusting income for the number of people living in the household, the bottom-quintile household received $33,653 per capita. The second and middle quintile households had on average $29,497 and $32,574 per capita, respectively. The blockbuster finding is that on a per capita basis the average bottom quintile household received 14% more income than the average second-quintile household and 3.3% more than the average middle-income household. …
The nearby chart compares the after-tax, after-transfer incomes of the bottom three quintiles of American households with no adjustment for household size, on a per capita basis, and using the average of the OECD and census adjustments for household size. We found that the average bottom-quintile household has $2,401 (or 6.6%) more income than the second quintile and only $3,306 (or 7.8%) less than the middle-income quintile.
By eroding self-reliance, worker pride and labor-force participation, government-generated income equality undermines the very foundations of American prosperity. A democratic society won’t knowingly tolerate it.