Inequality has been receiving a fair amount of attention in recent years. Even before the Great Recession hit, a number of researchers and academics were sharing observations on the divergent paths of those in the middle and on the bottom compared to those at the top and very top. Median wages have been relatively stagnant, and, more importantly, had become divorced from productivity gains. And while poverty has persisted for large segments of the population, the share of income controlled by those at the top has continued to climb. These have been long-term trends which began to take shape in the early 1980s. Two questions have been on my mind. First, what about wealth? Second, what’s the connection between the Great Recession and inequality in America?
I’ve posed these questions to Tim Noah, whose recent book, The Great Divergence, has helped elevate the discussion of inequality in America. Tim recently posted a response on his informative and insightful blog. But I didn’t like his answers.
In his book, Tim limits his discussion of inequality to the distribution of income. I think this fails to capture the full extent of the phenomenon. In some ways, I understand the choice. We have much better data for income than we do for wealth and traditionally that is where the research on inequality has focused. Still, income is only part to the story, and I fear Tim has needlessly limited his inquiry. It reminds me of looking for something where the light is brightest even though it was lost somewhere else.
New data from the Federal Reserve make it clear that wealth has assumed a leading role in the inequality story. Their Survey of Consumer Finances offers one of the fullest accounts of the family balance sheet. Unfortunately, it is conducted only every three years. The good news is that the last two surveys (2007 and 2010) offer a means to examine the impact of the Great Recession.
Here is what the Fed reported about the changes in wealth holdings. Between 2007 and 2010, the average family saw their wealth decline 39 percent. That is a sentence that deserves to be bolded. This far outpaced the 8% drop of income the average family experienced. The 39% drop in wealth speaks to the severity of the recession and it did get front page treatment on a number of news outlets. But the impact was not experienced equally. Families in the top ten percent by income actually saw their net worth increase almost two percent.
Those at the top had their wealth holdings increase and almost everybody else experienced a drastic decline. That’s inequality by definition. Check out the visual (rollover to see the absolute figures).
Here’s another perspective on the same phenomenon. This time the families are ranked by their net worth holdings rather than income. Those in the bottom 25% had their (admittedly small) wealth holdings completely wiped out. Families in the next three groups experienced big drops but at increasingly declining rates. The top 10% were relatively immune from the impact of the Great Recession, experiencing a wealth loss of 6.4%.
These charts offer new and illuminating information. While we have known for years that median incomes have stagnated even as there were income gains at the very top, the re-concentration of wealth is an emerging phenomenon. And it appears that the Great Recession has changed the dynamics at play.
Tim writes on his excellent blog that he can’t get too worked up about this for a number of reasons, almost all of which I find surprising.