Income Equality: The Middle Classes Aren’t Much Better Off than the “Poor”

By: Ryan McMaken

It’s easy to find income inequality in the United States when we compared the super-rich with the middle class. But when we compare the middle class to the “poor” there’s a surprising amount of income equality.

But how can the middle class have incomes similar to the poor? Isn’t that logically impossible?

Well, this sort of income equality is made possible by the existence of government social benefit programs. When we account for income transfers to low-wage workers — or to people who don’t work at all — we find that the incomes of middle class people — in spite of often working far longer hours — are similar to the poor.

The political implications of this are significant.

This is explored in a fascinating new article by Robert Ekelund and Phil Gramm, “How Income Equality Helped Trump,” at the Wall Street Journal last month.

The authors note:

The most surprising finding is the astonishing degree of equality among the bottom 60% of American earners, generated in part by the explosion of social-welfare spending and the economic and wage stagnation during the Obama era. Hardworking middle-income and lower-middle-income families must have recognized that their efforts left them little better off than the growing number of recipients of government transfers. The perceived injustice of this equality helped drive the political shift among blue-collar workers, many of whom supported the pro-growth candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016 despite having voted for Mr. Obama in the two previous presidential elections.

The bottom quintile earned 2.2% of all earned income in 2013, but after adjusting for taxes and transfer payments, its share of spendable income rose to 12.9%—six times its proportion of earnings. The second quintile’s share more than doubled, rising from 7% of earned income to 13.9% of spendable income. For the third quintile, middle-income Americans, the increase was much smaller, from 12.6% to 15.4%.

Not surprisingly, high earners lost a considerable share of their earnings after taxes and transfers are taken into account. The fourth quintile’s share fell from 20.5% to 18.6%, while the top quintile dropped from 57.7% of earnings to 39.3% of consumable income. In other words, the top quintile’s share of earnings was 26 times that of the bottom quintile, but after taxes and transfer payments its share of spendable income was only three times as much.

Even more startling is the near equality among the bottom three quintiles. The bottom quintile, which earned only 2.2% of all earned income, had virtually the same share of spendable income as the second quintile, lower-middle-income Americans. This equality is despite the fact that lower-middle-income workers earned more than three times the share of income and worked 21/2 times as much, measured by comparing each group’s number of full-time workers relative to its working-age population. Middle-income workers earned almost six times the share of income and worked almost four times as much compared with the bottom quintile, but they enjoyed only about 20% more spendable income.

This equality in income endured in spite of the fact that many middle-income families worked far harder for what income they did have:

And even these numbers understate the huge difference in work effort. Compared with the bottom quintile, the lower-middle-income quintile had almost four times as many working-age families whose members worked two or more jobs, and the middle-income quintile had more than seven times as many families with members working two or more jobs.

As Gramm and Ekelund explain, middle class people know that the wealthy make a lot more than the middle class does. But the middle classes can also see they’ve benefited from the goods and services brought to the market by the wealthy. 

Meanwhile, a  middle-class worker who has two jobs, or a 55-per hour work week looks around and sees relatives or neighbors who never seem to work, but who also have a similar standard of living. They might know perpetually unemployed acquaintances who rely on CHIP or Medicaid, free school lunches, food stamps, and a myriad of other programs, all available to  many. Meanwhile, the middle class worker is putting in long hours to obtain the same amount of food and health care. 

The middle class workers then realizes he’s working to pay for his own needs, and also those of the neighbor.

It’s easy to see why this might breed resentment. 

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