The refrain is all too familiar: Widening income inequality is a fatal flaw in capitalism and an “existential” threat to democracy. From 1967 to 2017, income inequality in the U.S. spiked 21.4%, and everyone from U.S. senators to the pope says it’s an urgent problem. Yet the data upon which claims about income inequality are based are profoundly flawed.
We have shown on these pages that Census Bureau income data fail to count two-thirds of all government transfer payments—including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and some 100 other government transfer payments—as income to the recipients. Furthermore, census data fail to count taxes paid as income lost to the taxpayer. When official government data are used to correct these deficiencies—when income is defined the way people actually define it—“income inequality” is reduced dramatically.
We can now show that if you count all government transfers (minus administrative costs) as income to the recipient household, reduce household income by taxes paid, and correct for two major discontinuities in the time-series data on income inequality that were caused solely by changes in Census Bureau data-collection methods, the claim that income inequality is growing on a secular basis collapses. Not only is income inequality in America not growing, it is lower today than it was 50 years ago.
While the disparity in earned income has become more pronounced in the past 50 years, the actual inflation-adjusted income received by the bottom quintile, counting the value of all transfer payments received net of taxes paid, has risen by 300%. The top quintile has seen its after-tax income rise by only 213%. As government transfer payments to low-income households exploded, their labor-force participation collapsed and the percentage of income in the bottom quintile coming from government payments rose above 90%.