A rich man, poor man election

Three new studies show inequality is growing. Depending on who is elected in November, it could get a lot worse

Topics: Income inequality, ,

A rich man, poor man electionMitt Romney and Barack Obama (Credit: AP)

Three new reports on taxes, inequality and economic mobility add up to one conclusion: The 2012 presidential election should be about one thing, and one thing only: class warfare.

Let’s start with a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, “Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations.”

The Pew Economic Mobility Project has been tracking the economic status of thousands of families since 1968 — the data covered in the current report is through 2009. And there is some good news: Absolute income has increased for Americans of all economic classes, from the poorest to the richest. The richest Americans have seen much larger relative gains, and, naturally, are far more immune to skyrocketing healthcare and education costs than are the poor, but at least part of the American dream is still intact: Children are still earning higher incomes than their parents.

But then comes the bad news: When one measures wealth — the total assets held by families — instead of income, the picture is substantially different. As Catherine Rampell summarized in the New York Times:

The median person in the poorest quintile has a family net worth that is 63 percent less than that of his counterpart a generation ago: $2,748, versus $7,439 …

The median family in the top socioeconomic class today (i.e., the family at the 90th percentile) is worth $629,853, compared to $495,510 in the last generation. That’s a 27 percent increase in the size of the median fortune in the top income stratum.

If you’re scoring at home: Rich: richer; Poor: poorer.

Now let’s move to “Inequality and Redistribution During the Great Recession,” a research paper produced by the Minneapolis Fed.

In 2010, the bottom 20 percent of the U.S. earnings distribution was doing much worse, relative to the median, than in the entire postwar period. This is because their earnings (including wages, salaries, and business and farm income) fell by about 30 percent relative to the median over the course of the recession. This lowest quintile also did poorly in terms of wealth, which declined about 40 percent …



However, even as earnings plunged, disposable income and consumption managed to hold even, relatively speaking, for the poorest Americans as compared to other classes. This is a bit of a mystery, noted the authors, who believe it can be explained by aggressive government redistribution and tax cuts.

Our main substantive conclusion is that government redistribution in the Great Recession was at historical highs and partially shielded households from experiencing large declines in disposable income and consumption expenditures. The same households, though, have experienced losses in net wealth, and this might make them more vulnerable to further or more persistent earnings declines in the future.

If you’re still keeping score: While the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer, the Great Recession absolutely hammered the worst-off Americans, but substantial government support — unemployment benefits, food stamps, Medicaid, tax cuts — saved the most vulnerable Americans from utter disaster.

And that brings us to our third report, the Congressional Budget Office’s latest numbers on federal taxes: “The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes: 2008-2009.

The bottom line: In 2009, as a result of tax cuts included in the stimulus, Americans ended up paying the lowest percentage of their income in federal taxes since 1979.

The observations included in these reports mutually reinforce each other. For example, one reason why the wealthiest Americans have done so much better than everyone else is directly related to substantial cuts in the capital gains tax rate over the past several decades. High unemployment and the collapse in home prices as a result of the Great Recession, on the other hand, have a disproportionately greater effect on poorer Americans, whose net wealth has been declining over past decades.

The numbers also beg to be put in political context. Over the long term, the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer. In the short term, the poor took the brunt of the impact of the Great Recession, and were only kept afloat through government assistance. However, as tax rates have fallen to historic lows, it has become more and more difficult for the federal government to find the resources necessary to ameliorate widening inequality.

Now consider the fact that the Republican candidate for president wants to cut taxes even further, while eviscerating the social welfare safety net that is the only thing staving off complete economic disaster for poorer Americans. It’s class warfare all right, but one side seems to have already won.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>