August 21, 2008
The “What’s Fair” contest
At Café Hayek, George Mason’s Russell Roberts opens up a brand new “Inequality Chart Contest.” The chart in question is based on work by Thomas Piketty (professor, Paris School of Economics) and Emmanuel Saez (professor, University of California Berkeley), the essence of which is that the rich have gotten richer and everyone else not so much. (You can find a link to the Piketty-Saez paper, as well as updated data and executive summaries, on Emmanuel Saez’ homepage. Russell links to more information from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)
Here’s the picture…
… and the contest is to construct “ONE sentence explaining ONE thing that is wrong with concluding that these numbers are evidence that the U.S. economy has become more tilted toward the rich at the expense of the poor.”
In the spirit of prompting reflection on issues of inequality and fairness, I invite you to think about the following three pictures, generated from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax data through 2006:
Let’s focus on the 1 percent of income-earners (by IRS defined Adjusted Gross Income, or AGI). If you look at the average federal tax rate paid by this group—that is, taxes paid divided by AGI—it did fall substantially over the period from 2000–2006. The average tax rates for other income groups fell as well, but not as dramatically.
If you instead prefer to look at taxes paid, the share the top 1 percent forked over to the federal government rose from 37.4 percent in 2000 to 39.9 percent in 2006. The share paid by the next highest 4 percent rose only slightly over this period, and the share paid by all other groups actually fell or stayed roughly the same.
On the other hand, concentrating on the share of taxes paid relative to the share of income earned by each group would lead you to the conclusion that not much had changed between the year 2000 and 2006.
So here’s the contest: Explain in one sentence which one of those pictures tells us whether the federal income-tax system has become more or less “fair.”
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February 13, 2007
Poverty In The Suburbs
Once prized as a leafy haven from the social ills of urban life, the suburbs are now grappling with a new outbreak of an old problem: poverty. Currently, 38 million Americans live below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as an annual income of $20,000 or less for a family of four. But for the first time in history, more of America's poor are living in the suburbs than the cities—1.2 million more, according to a 2005 survey. "The suburbs have reached a tipping point," says Brookings Institution analyst Alan Berube, who compiled the data.
Cleveland, as it turns out, is chosen as the poster city for suburban poverty:
Six years ago, Brian Lavelle moved out of the city of Cleveland to the nearby suburb of Lakewood for what he thought would be a better life... Then, three years ago, the steel mill closed and Lavelle found that the life he dreamed of was just that, a dream. The suburbs, he quickly learned, are a tough place to live if you're poor.
... five years ago, a Hunger Network food pantry in Bedford Heights, a struggling suburb of Cleveland, served 50 families a month. Now more than 700 families depend on it for food.
Howard and Jane Pettry, of Middleburg Heights, Ohio [another Cleveland suburb], see themselves as working-class—just facing hard times. In December, Jane was laid off from her job at a local supermarket, and a week later Howard had a heart attack and missed a month of work from his job at a grain mill. Now Jane's collecting unemployment and they're staring at the poverty line as they struggle to pay the mortgage and the bills.
Is it really the case that the suburbs are increasingly poverty-ridden? I'm suspicious. Not too long ago, my colleagues Mark Schweitzer and Brian Rudick examined the case of Cleveland specifically:
Cleveland is the poorest big city in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, with nearly a third of the city’s residents living in poverty. The city’s poverty rate also rose since it was last measured. These numbers have received a lot of attention since they were released, but unfortunately, they are easily misinterpreted.
The numbers tell us that Cleveland has many poor people. But the numbers don’t tell us that Clevelanders have become worse off, that the region’s economy has deteriorated, or even that there are more poor people in the city than before.
A closer look at the American Community Survey results suggests that Cleveland’s poverty rate reflects the fact that the region’s poor are concentrated in the central city, while the wealthier live in the suburbs. The rate may have risen because people are moving out of the city, and those that leave are disproportionately better-off than those that stay behind. Neither of these facts on its own says anything about the economic health of the region, but they do say something about the relative desirability of living in the city versus its outskirts.
The definition of the Cleveland MSA has recently changed to exclude Ashtabula County, but under either the old or new definition, poverty is far lower outside the city than inside it.
... Looking at the poverty rate of the MSA [metropolitan statistical area] reveals that Cleveland (officially the Cleveland-Lorain-Elyria MSA) is not too different from other U.S. cities. The poverty rate of the Cleveland MSA is just a little above the average for all metropolitan areas in the United States. And like other cities in the country, Cleveland’s suburbs have far lower poverty than the city itself.
...the 2005 rise in metro area poverty figures seen in this figure is almost entirely accounted for by the increase in the number of poor people in the city of Cleveland, rather than in the suburbs. In the 2004-2005 shift that boosted the poverty rate for the MSA, for example, the number of poor people in the MSA grew by 43,540, but 36,991 of that increase occurred in the city.
It is true that the number of poor people in the suburbs is larger than the number of poor people in the city -- according to Schweitzer and Rudick "about two-thirds of the metro area’s poor live outside the city of Cleveland" -- but this is simply a function of the fact that the population of the MSA is heavily concentrated outside of the city. In terms of poverty trends, there just isn't that much happening in the suburbs:
If one wants to use Cleveland to tell a story about poverty -- especially concentrated poverty -- the action is still in the central city.
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November 22, 2006
Inequality: Not Just Made In The USA
China’s poor grew poorer at a time when the country was growing substantially wealthier, an analysis by World Bank economists has found.
The real income of the poorest 10 per cent of China’s 1.3bn people fell by 2.4 per cent in the two years to 2003, the analysis showed, a period when the economy was growing by nearly 10 per cent a year. Over the same period, the income of China’s richest 10 per cent rose by more than 16 per cent...
China, which had relatively even income distribution in 1980 when it embarked on market reforms, is now “less equal” than the US and Russia, using the Gini co-efficient, a standard measure of income disparities.
The Wall Street Journal has more (on page A4 of today's print edition):
The reason for the income decline at the bottom isn't clear. The World Bank hasn't completed its analysis and its conclusions haven't been published. Even so, the data call into question an economic model that economists have held up as an example for other developing nations.
"This finding is very important. If true, it sheds doubt on the argument that a rising tide lifts all boats," said Bert Hofman, the World Bank's chief economist in China...
Many observers place part of the blame on the way China dismantled its social-welfare system as it phased out state control of the economy -- without building up much to replace it. Health care has become a point of particular concern, as costs shoot up without any widespread system of medical insurance to cover them.
Here is an important piece of information:
The World Bank's Mr. Hofman says the bank's analysis shows the majority of China's poorest 10% appear to be only temporarily poor, thrown down by some setback like sudden illness, the loss of a job or the confiscation of land. That suggests that a basic social safety net, like medical insurance or unemployment benefits, could help move them back out of poverty. Only about 20% to 30% of the poorest appear to be long-term poor, and even they have some savings.
... the survey compares snapshots of the lowest tier of Chinese society at two different points, rather than tracking the same of group of households over time. So, it doesn't necessarily mean that the people who were in the poorest 10% of society in 2001 were all 2.5% worse off in 2003.
Temporary bouts of economic hardship are clearly a much different thing than persistent poverty traps. And if, in fact, poverty is predominantly transitory, we should perhaps be more circumspect about declaring that a rising tide fails to raise all boats. Rising inequality -- here and elsewhere -- may be very well be a problem. But policymakers would be well advised to understand what problem it is, before the surgery begins.
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August 30, 2006
There is a little something for everyone -- that is to say, things to cheer about, things to frown about -- in the Census Bureau's report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage for 2005. MarketWatch summarizes:
Real U.S. median household income rose 1.1% in 2005, climbing for the first increase since 1999, but inflation-adjusted incomes still have not recovered fully from the 2001 recession, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.
Real median incomes for 2005 rose 1.1% to $46,326 but were down 0.5% from 2001's $46,569. Median income means half of the 114.4 million U.S. households earned less, half earned more. The figures have been adjusted for inflation.
Income inequality continued to increase, with the top 20% of families accounting for a record 50.4% of all household income, just the third time since the mid-1960s that they've taken more than half. For the top 20%, the median income rose by $3,592, or 2.2%, to $166,000.
Meanwhile, the bottom 20% captured just 3.4% of income, matching their lowest share since the mid-1960s. Median incomes for the bottom 20% increased by $17, or 0.2%, to $11,288...
The poverty rate declined for the first time since 2000, nosing down to 12.6% from 12.7%, but this amounted to a statistically insignificant change, the government said. The poverty rate was 1.3 percentage points higher than 2001's 11.3% but was lower than the 13.8% average in the 1990s.
If you are poor and not working -- which is the most common circumstance for those under the poverty line -- the reasons are not obviously associated with a lack of jobs for those who choose to remain in the labor force.
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» Are Conditions Getting Worse for the Poor in the U.S.? from EclectEcon
There has been quite a bit of discussion in the media and around the blogosphere during the past couple of days about labour income and about conditions for the U.S. poor. Here's more from ... [Read More]
Tracked on Aug 30, 2006 1:57:02 PM
July 22, 2006
Odds And Ends -- July 22 Edition
A rainy morning in Cleveland, and an opportunity to do some quality blog-surfing.
The confluence of Chairman Bernanke's Congressional testimony and the release of the June FOMC meeting minutes got lots of people thinking about what is next for U.S. monetary policy. Brad Delong is "surprised that there hasn't been a pause yet" and thinks that we haven't seen one because "the Fed is scared of the 'soft on inflation' headlines that a pause would generate." The Capital Spectator offers a terrific round-up of the week's economic news, and claims that "In theory, a slowing economy makes it easier for the Federal Reserve to cease and desist with its current round of interest rate hikes. In practice, life's more difficult, thanks to the worrisome rise in core CPI in June..." Tim Duy also thinks that "although the Bernanke sounded soothing relative to expectations, the incoming data argue for another rate hike in August." Toni Straka believes the "rate trend will stay the same and probably accelerate." At Hypothetical Bias, the opinion is "Once more and done (for a bit, at least)". William Polley is leaning that way too. Barry Ritholtz reiterates: The Bernanke bounce in the stock market is a "sucker bet".
Speaking of the Chairman -- more specifically his ideas about the global savings and investment and their relationship with interest rates -- Mark Thoma has a legitimate beef with the use of the word "glut."
Other summaries of, and commentary on, the week's economic news: From Dr. John John Rutledge (here and here). Calculated Risk provides a nice graphical look at where housing inventories are building, replicated from the Wall Street Journal. The Nattering Naybob Chronicles has its usual rundown of the week in bond and equity markets. MacroMouse contemplates the end of quantitative easing in Japan, and sees lessons for U.S. policymakers. Tim Iacono has plenty of this and that, as does The Skeptical Speculator.
On my exchange with Nouriel Roubini on Chinese currency reform, Kash agrees "it does not feel like we're getting closer to some sort of crisis" but wonders "what should we expect it to feel like?" Paul at Truck and Barter gets right to the substance of our exchange, while Brad Setser adds his own, ever insightful, thoughts at RGE Monitor. The Skeptical Speculator notes that "China has taken additional steps to cool its economy." Though not about the Chinese case specifically, Daniel Gross addresses a related and really important question: Is the end of American dominance in capital markets done?
Russell Roberts echoes an argument made this week by Ben Bernanke: In dealing with low-wage workers, an earned-income credit is preferable to a minimum wage. He also takes on Paul Krugman's position on both the minimum wage and the inequality statistics that Krugman argues support a minimum wage policy.
Brad DeLong highlights an interesting column by Hal Varian on luck and taxation. (Bottom line: If luck -- as opposed to hard work and risk-taking -- is a big part of being rich progressive taxation makes good economic sense. The intuition would be that luck is not sensitive to prices, and so won't be diminished by relatively high taxes.)
Mark Thoma noticed the Varian piece too, and has several links to others opining on the inequality debate more generally. I'd also check out Greg Mankiw's ruminations, Tom McGuire's recent "Stalking Points", and, if you have the time, everything in the Cafe Hayek archive on inequality.
Taking a more global perspective on poverty and inequality, J.S. at Environmental Economics shares some thoughts on "Rethinking Development Aid For The 21st Century" (thoughts which sound pretty darn sensible to me). Also, NEI Nuclear Notes asks "Should Developing Nations Embrace Nuclear Energy?" In the category of excellent advice, The New Economist quite rightly commends your attention to the Private Sector Development Blog. (So do I.)
A colorful picture of who gets what from oil revenues across the G7 is available at Contango.
Hat tip to Captain Capitalism for the link to this article about a county in Oregon that is running its own monetary system. Mark Thoma comments intelligently on a proposal to implement a commodity-based monetary system backed by "local renewable energy" (whatever that might mean).
Daniel Drezner links to an interesting article in the Economist on the value (or lack thereof?) of large quantitative trade models.
July 22, 2006 in Asia, Economic Growth and Development, Energy, Exchange Rates and the Dollar, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Housing, Inequality, Saving, Capital, and Investment, This, That, and the Other | Permalink
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