Politics of Poverty

7 possibilities for addressing income inequality in the US

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As inequality increases, more questions than answers?

Here are the facts:

Income inequality in the US continues to worsen. While earners at the very top claim greater shares of the country’s income distribution, shares among the rest are shrinking.

A recent analysis by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston suggests incomes for the bottom 90% only grew by $59 between 1966 and 2011 (inflation adjusted). Over the same period, average incomes for the top 10% rose by $116,071. The top 1% saw their share grow by $628,817. And the top 1% of the 1%? They saw their share grow by $18,362,740.

Here’s a visual courtesy of Johnston: If a $59 boost is equivalent to an inch, then the incomes of the top 10% grew by 168 FEET! The top 1% grew by 884 feet, and the cream of the crop – the top 1% of the 1% – saw an increase of 4.9 miles (that’s 310,464 feet). I attempted to plot these distances on the graph below. However, it’s largely unreadable because the cream of the crop dwarfs even the 1% as a whole. (If you look close though, you can sort of see the other distributions.)


And this trend is becoming worse.

Despite the fifth year of post-financial crisis recovery, inequality is growing. The first two months of 2013 saw median incomes drop by 1.1%, to $51,404, moving it 5.6% below where it was in June 2009 (from $54,437 at the start of the recovery). Since 2000, Americans have seen the median income drop nearly 9%.

At the other side of the income spectrum, a different story has unfolded. Since 2009, while the bottom 90% saw their incomes shrink, the top 10% of earners took a whopping 149% of the post-recovery growth! How is that possible, you ask? Because the incomes of the bottom 90% shrank. The top 1% captured 81% of the gains, of which more than half went to the top 1/10 of the 1%, and 39% of the gains to the top 1% of the 1%.

“Ponder that last fact for a moment,” says Johnston. “The top 1 percent of the top 1 percent, those making at least $7.97 million in 2011, enjoyed 39 percent of all the income gains in America. In a nation of 158.4 million households, just 15,837 of them received 39 cents out of every dollar of increased income.”

We’ve got more questions than answers.

The dangers of growing income inequality are now widely recognized. Yet, there’s little dialogue regarding how to reverse the tide, especially in the US.

At issue is a fundamental question:

How do we recast the American economy so that it generates broad-based growth, as opposed to merely great growth at the very top, and flat (or even regressive) growth for everyone else?

Oxfam is still trying to identify the best policy solutions to help curb inequality in the US, and we’re interested what our allies, adversaries, and the blogosphere have to say about the following possibilities:

1)      Target the wealthy. Make corporations and rich people pay their fair share.

2)      Gain greater access to social services for the very poor.

3)      Strengthen organized labor.

4)      Raise the minimum wage.

5)      Improve education.

6)      Clean up America’s legislative and regulatory bodies, which are too corrupted by wealth.

7)      Focus on creating more incentives for an environment of inclusive growth.

I offer these to stimulate thinking, not as a be-all-end-all list. So what’s missing? Which of these or other policy responses may prove best to reverse the US’s growing inequality? We want to hear from you!

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