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Misperceptions About the Magnitude and Timing of Changes in American Income Inequality

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  • Robert J. Gordon

Abstract

The rise in American inequality has been exaggerated both in magnitude and timing. Commentators lament the large gap between the growth rates of real median household income and of private sector productivity. This paper shows that a conceptually consistent measure of this growth gap over 1979 to 2007 is only one-tenth of the conventional measure. Further, the timing of the rise of inequality is often misunderstood. By some measures inequality stopped growing after 2000 and by others inequality has not grown since 1993. This cessation of inequality’s secular rise in 2000 is evident from the growth of Census mean vs. median income, and in the income share of the top one percent of the income distribution. The income share of the 91st to 95th percentile has not increased since 1983, and the income ratio of the 90th to 10th percentile has barely increased since 1986. Further, despite a transient decline in labor’s income share in 2000-06, by mid-2009 labor’s share had returned virtually to the same value as in 1983, 1991, and 2001. Recent contributions in the inequality literature have raised questions about previous research on skill-biased technical change and the managerial power of CEOs. Directly supporting our theme of prior exaggeration of the rise of inequality is new research showing that price indexes for the poor rise more slowly than for the rich, causing most empirical measures of inequality to overstate the growth of real income of the rich vs. the poor. Further, as much as two-thirds of the post-1980 increase in the college wage premium disappears when allowance is made for the faster rise in the cost of living in cities where the college educated congregate and for the lower quality of housing in those cities. A continuing tendency for life expectancy to increase faster among the rich than among the poor reflects the joint impact of education on both economic and health outcomes, some of which are driven by the behavioral choices of the less educated.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 15351.

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Date of creation: Sep 2009
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15351

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  1. Autor, David & Dorn, David, 2009. "Inequality and Specialization: The Growth of Low-Skill Service Jobs in the United States," IZA Discussion Papers 4290, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  2. Dew-Becker, Ian & Gordon, Robert J, 2005. "Where did the Productivity Growth Go? Inflation Dynamics and the Distribution of Income," CEPR Discussion Papers, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers 5419, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  3. Enrico Moretti, 2008. "Real Wage Inequality," NBER Working Papers 14370, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Xavier Gabaix & Augustin Landier, 2006. "Why Has CEO Pay Increased So Much?," NBER Working Papers 12365, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Richard Burkhauser & Shuaizhang Feng & Stephen Jenkins, 2007. "Using the P90/P10 Index to Measure U.S. Inequality Trends with Current Population Survey Data: A View From Inside the Census Bureau Vaults," Working Papers 07-17, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  6. Carola Frydman & Raven E. Saks, 2008. "Executive Compensation: A New View from a Long-Term Perspective, 1936-2005," NBER Working Papers 14145, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. David H. Autor & Lawrence F. Katz & Melissa S. Kearney, 2006. "The Polarization of the U.S. Labor Market," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, American Economic Association, vol. 96(2), pages 189-194, May.
  8. Steven N. Kaplan & Joshua Rauh, 2010. "Wall Street and Main Street: What Contributes to the Rise in the Highest Incomes?," NBER Chapters, in: Corporate Governance National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2003. "Income Inequality In The United States, 1913-1998," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, MIT Press, vol. 118(1), pages 1-39, February.
  10. David H. Autor & Lawrence F. Katz & Melissa S. Kearney, 2008. "Trends in U.S. Wage Inequality: Revising the Revisionists," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 90(2), pages 300-323, May.
  11. Philippon, Thomas & Reshef, Ariell, 2009. "Wages and Human Capital in the U.S. Financial Industry: 1909-2006," CEPR Discussion Papers, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers 7282, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  12. Ian Dew-Becker & Robert J. Gordon, 2005. "Where Did Productivity Growth Go? Inflation Dynamics and the Distribution of Income," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 36(2), pages 67-150.
  13. Burkhauser, Richard V. & Feng, Shuaizhang & Jenkins, Stephen P. & Larrimore, Jeff, 2009. "Recent Trends in Top Income Shares in the USA: Reconciling Estimates from March CPS and IRS Tax Return Data," IZA Discussion Papers 4426, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  14. Arantxa Jarque, 2008. "CEO compensation : trends, market changes, and regulation," Economic Quarterly, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, issue Sum, pages 265-300.
  15. Richard Burkhauser & Shuaizhang Feng & Stephen Jenkins & Jeff Larrimore, 2008. "Estimating Trends in U.S. Income Inequality Using the Current Population Survey: The Importance of Controlling for Censoring," Working Papers 08-25, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  16. Robert J. Gordon & Ian Dew-Becker, 2007. "Selected Issues in the Rise of Income Inequality," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 38(2), pages 169-192.
  17. Dew-Becker, Ian & Gordon, Robert J, 2008. "Controversies about the Rise in American Inequality: A Survey," CEPR Discussion Papers, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers 6817, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  18. David M. Cutler & Adriana Lleras-Muney & Tom Vogl, 2008. "Socioeconomic Status and Health: Dimensions and Mechanisms," NBER Working Papers 14333, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  19. Brian J. Hall & Jeffrey B. Liebman, 2000. "The Taxation of Executive Compensation," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 14, pages 1-44 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  20. Robert J. Gordon, 2003. "Exploding Productivity Growth: Context, Causes, and Implications," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 34(2), pages 207-298.
  21. Thomas Lemieux & W. Bentley MacLeod & Daniel Parent, 2009. "Performance Pay and Wage Inequality-super-," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, MIT Press, vol. 124(1), pages 1-49, February.
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Cited by:
  1. Ariell Reshef, 2013. "Is Technological Change Biased Towards the Unskilled in Services? An Empirical Investigation," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 16(2), pages 312-331, April.
  2. Nicholas Oulton, 2012. "Hooray for GDP!," CEP Occasional Papers, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE 30, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
  3. Pryor, Frederic L., 2012. "The impact of income inequality on values and attitudes," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 41(5), pages 615-622.
  4. Jeffrey D. Sachs & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 2012. "Smart Machines and Long-Term Misery," NBER Working Papers 18629, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Richard V. Burkhauser & Jeff Larrimore & Kosali I. Simon, 2011. "A "Second Opinion" on the Economic Health of the American Middle Class," NBER Working Papers 17164, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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