The following is an excerpt from a speech Alan Krueger, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave at the Center for American Progress on Thursday. The full text is available here.
Although I have done much research on inequality, I used to have an aversion to using the term. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal ran an article in the mid-1990s that noted that I prefer to use the term “dispersion.” But the rise in income dispersion – along so many dimensions – has gotten to be so high, that I now think that inequality is a more appropriate term.
President Obama summarized the rise of inequality very succinctly in his Osawatomie, Kansas speech, when he said, “over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.”
These trends are well documented but worth reviewing. My first figure shows the annualized growth rate of real income for families in each fifth of the income distribution over two periods. The figure shows that all quintiles (fifths) of the income distribution grew together from the end of World War II to the late 1970s, but since the 1970s, income has grown more for families at the top of the income distribution than in the middle, and it has shrunk for those at the bottom.
I should point out that the pattern in the post-1970s period is not monolithic. As this next chart shows, the period from 1992 to 2000 was an exception, when strong economic growth and the policies of the Clinton administration led all quintiles to grow together again. Indeed, all income groups experienced their fastest income growth in years.