There is no doubt that incomes are unequal in the United States — far more so than in most European nations. This fact is part of the impulse behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose members claim to represent the 99 percent of us against the wealthiest 1 percent. It has also sparked a major debate in the Republican presidential race, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has come under fire for his tax rates and his career as the head of a private-equity firm.
And economic disparity was the recurring theme of President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” the president warned, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share.”
But the mere existence of income inequality tells us little about what, if anything, should be done about it. First, we must answer some key questions. Who constitutes the prosperous and the poor? Why has inequality increased? Does an unequal income distribution deny poor people the chance to buy what they want? And perhaps most important: How do Americans feel about inequality?
To answer these questions, it is not enough to take a snapshot of our incomes; we must instead have a motion picture of them and of how people move in and out of various income groups over time.
The “rich” in America are not a monolithic, unchanging class. A study by Thomas A. Garrett, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, found that less than half of people in the top 1 percent in 1996 were still there in 2005. Such mobility is hardly surprising: A business school student, for instance, may have little money and high debts, but nine years later he or she could be earning a big Wall Street salary and bonus.
Mobility is not limited to the top-earning households. A study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that nearly half of the families in the lowest fifth of income earners in 2001 had moved up within six years. Over the same period, more than a third of those in the highest fifth of income-earners had moved down. Certainly, there are people such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who are ensconced in the top tier, but far more common are people who are rich for short periods.
And who are the rich? Affluent people, compared with poor ones, tend to have greater education and spouses who work full time. The past three decades have seen significant increases in real earnings for people with advanced degrees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between 1979 and 2010, hourly wages for men and women with at least a college degree rose by 33 percent and 20 percent, respectively, while they fell for all people with less than a high school diploma — by 9 percent for women and 31 percent for men.
Also, households with two earners have seen their incomes rise. This trend is driven in part by women’s increasing workforce participation, which doubled from 1950 to 2005 and which began to place women in well-paid jobs by the early 1980s.