A lot of the lefty sites are gearing up the "poor aren't sharing in the benefits" bandwagon again. This is usually brought out of the garage whenever someone wants to put a really progressive soak-the-successful tax plan on the table. So get ready.
The key to parsing their argument is to understand the following distinction: Do you care about quintiles, or individuals? Because if you care about quintiles, then there is no doubt that the real median income of the lowest income quintile has not advanced much over the last 15-20 years. But quintiles are not individuals, and the evidence is that individuals are still doing well, whatever bracket they begin in. Because you see, while the average for the bottom quintile may not be much higher than the average for that bracket a decade ago, the fact is that the people in that bracket have changed. As Mark Perry writes:
A common misperception is that the top or bottom income quintiles, or the top or bottom X% by income, are static, closed, private clubs with very little turnover - once you get into a top or bottom quintile, or a certain income percent, you stay there for life, making it difficult for people to move to a different group. But reality is very different - people move up and down the income quintiles and percentage groups throughout their careers and lives. The top or bottom 1/5/10%, just like the top or bottom quintiles, are never the same people from year to year, there is constant turnover as we move up and down the quintiles.
He quotes some stats from Jeffrey Jones and Daniel Heil:
How much income mobility exists in America? Research consistently affirms that there is substantial upward income mobility in the United States, with the lowest income earners typically showing the strongest results. A Treasury Department study of the 1996"“2005 period used IRS income tax data to discern considerable mobility: more than 55% of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile. More than half the people in the lowest fifth of earners moved to a higher quintile over this period (29% to the second, 14% to the third, 10% to the fourth, and 5% to the highest).
Moreover, there is a great deal of movement in and out of the top income groups. The Treasury data show that 57% "of households in the top 1% in 2005 were not there nine years earlier." The rich sometimes get richer, but they get poorer as well. The study also reveals that income mobility has increased, not decreased, during the past twenty years. For example, 47.3% of those in the lowest income quintile in 1987 saw their incomes increase by at least 100% by 1996. That number jumped to 53.5% from 1996 to 2005.
The Pew Economic Mobility Project tried to track actual people, and not brackets, from tax returns. This is an imperfect science, but the only real way to look at income mobility. They found that 90% of white children and 73% of black children whose parents were in the lowest income quartile in the base period were later to be found in higher income quartiles. But this chart, from the same study, is really telling:
That is a pretty amazing picture, marred only by something apparently bad occurring with the kids of middle class African Americans.
So how can there be so much income gain everywhere without the averages for the lower quintile increasing. I would offer at least two explanations:
- Immigration. As people gain skills and seniority, they progress to higher income brackets and out of the lower quintile. However, there is a constant stream of low-skill immigrants moving to this country to fill in the bottom quintile. It we were to do a quintile analysis apples to apples leaving out new immigrants in the period, I guarantee you would see the median income for the lower quintile increase. As I wrote before:
Frequent readers will know that I am a strong supporter of open immigration....However, I am tempted to become a close-the-border proponent if the left continue to use numbers skewed by immigration to justify expansions of taxation and the welfare state. Whether they are illegal or not, whether they should be allowed to stay or not, the fact is that tens of millions of generally poor and unskilled immigrants have entered this country over the last several decades. These folks dominate the lower quintile of wage earners in this country, and skew all of our traditional economic indicators downwards. Median wages appear to be stagnating? Of course the metric looks this way "” as wages have risen, 10 million new folks have been inserted at the bottom. If you really want to know what the current median wage is on an apples to apples basis back to 1970, take the current reported median wage and count up about 10 million spots, and that should be the number "” and it will be much higher.
By the way, even for these immigrants, their position in the lower quintile represents upward mobility for them. Being in the middle of the lower quintile probably is a huge improvement over where they were in their home country - almost by definition, or they would not be working so hard to get here.
- Safety Net. Some large portion of the bottom quintile are supported by the US government's safety net. And there are pretty good fiscal reasons why the typical real incomes generated by that safety net have not increased over the last 20 years. And even beyond the fiscal issues, there are incentives issues as well -- at some point, increasing how lucrative the safety net is can reduce the incentive to get off the safety net and find a job. Just ask the Swedes. There is a delicate balance between humanity and sustaining folks vs. killing their motivation.In some ways the left's use of the lack of lower quintile progress as an indictment of American capitalism is wildly ironic. Basically what they are saying is that the 80% of people who support themselves through capitalist endeavor are doing progressively better but the 20% of the people supported by the government are stagnating -- and therefore we need to increase the role of government.