The Rising Costs of US Income Inequality

BERKELEY – During the last several decades, income inequality in the United States has increased significantly – and the trend shows no sign of reversing. The last time inequality was as high as it is now was just before the Great Depression. Such a high level of inequality is not only incompatible with widely held norms of social justice and equality of opportunity; it poses a serious threat to America’s economy and democracy.

Underlying the country’s soaring inequality is income stagnation for the majority of Americans. With an expanding share of the gains from economic growth flowing to a tiny fraction of high-income US households, average family income for the bottom 90% has been flat since 1980. According to a recent report by the Council of Economic Advisers, if the share of income going to the bottom 90% was the same in 2013 as it was in 1973, median annual household income (adjusted for family size) would be 18%, or about $9,000, higher than it is now.

The disposable (after tax and transfer) incomes of poor families in the US have trailed those of their counterparts in other developed countries for decades. Now the US middle class is also falling behind.

During the last three decades, middle-income households in most developed countries enjoyed larger increases in disposable income than comparable US households. This year, the US lost the distinction of having the “most affluent” middle class to Canada, with several European countries not far behind. Once the generous public benefits in education, health care, and retirement are added to estimates of disposable family income in these countries, the relative position of the US middle class slips even further.