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

  • Robert J. Gordon

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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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
Note: EFG LS PR
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  1. 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.
  2. Richard V. Burkhauser & Shuaizhang Feng & Stephen P. Jenkins, 2007. "Using the P90/P10 Index to Measure US Inequality Trends with Current Population Survey Data: A View from Inside the Census Bureau Vaults," Discussion Papers of DIW Berlin 699, DIW Berlin, German Institute for Economic Research.
  3. Dew-Becker, Ian & Gordon, Robert J, 2008. "Controversies about the Rise in American Inequality: A Survey," CEPR Discussion Papers 6817, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  4. Xavier Gabaix & Augustin Landier, 2008. "Why Has CEO Pay Increased So Much?," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 123(1), pages 49-100, 02.
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  7. Philippon, Thomas & Reshef, Ariell, 2009. "Wages and Human Capital in the U.S. Financial Industry: 1909-2006," CEPR Discussion Papers 7282, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  8. Richard V. Burkhauser & Shuaizhang Feng & Stephen P. Jenkins & Jeff Larrimore, 2011. "Estimating trends in US income inequality using the Current Population Survey: the importance of controlling for censoring," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 31998, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
  9. 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.
  10. Ian Dew-Becker & Robert J. Gordon, 2005. "Where Did the Productivity Growth Go? Inflation Dynamics and the Distribution of Income," NBER Working Papers 11842, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. David H. Autor & Lawrence F. Katz & Melissa S. Kearney, 2006. "The Polarization of the U.S. Labor Market," NBER Working Papers 11986, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. 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).
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  14. 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.
  15. Arantxa Jarque, 2008. "CEO compensation : trends, market changes, and regulation," Economic Quarterly, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, issue Sum, pages 265-300.
  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. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2003. "Income Inequality In The United States, 1913-1998," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 118(1), pages 1-39, February.
  18. 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.
  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. Thomas Lemieux & W. Bentley MacLeod & Daniel Parent, 2009. "Performance Pay and Wage Inequality-super-," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 124(1), pages 1-49, February.
  21. David M. Cutler & Lawrence F. Katz, 1991. "Macroeconomic Performance and the Disadvantaged," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 22(2), pages 1-74.
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