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Democratic Inequality

CHICAGO – Why did the household savings rate in the United States plummet before the Great Recession? Two of my colleagues at the University of Chicago, Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse, offer an intriguing answer: growing income inequality.

Bertrand and Morse find that in the years before the crisis, in areas (usually states) where consumption was high among households in the top fifth of the income distribution, household consumption was high at lower income levels as well. After ruling out a number of possible explanations, they concluded that poorer households imitated the consumption patterns of richer households in their area.

Consistent with the idea that households at lower income levels were “keeping up with the Vanderbilts,” the non-rich (but not the really poor) living near high-spending wealthy consumers tended to spend much more on items that richer households usually consumed, such as jewelry, beauty and fitness, and domestic services. Indeed, many borrowed to finance their spending, with the result that the proportion of poorer households in financial distress or filing for bankruptcy was significantly higher in areas where the rich earned (and spent) more. Were it not for such imitative consumption, non-rich households would have saved, on average, more than $800 annually in recent years.

This is one of the first detailed studies of the adverse effects of income inequality that I have seen. It goes beyond the headline-grabbing “1%” debate to show that even the everyday inequality that most Americans face – between the incomes of, say, typical readers of this commentary and the rest – has deep pernicious effects.