A highly unequal U.S. recovery

March 6, 2012

No wonder most Americans feel like the recession never ended. A new paper from Emmanuel Saez, a Berkeley professor and expert on inequality, shows the overwhelming majority of income gains – 93 percent – accrued in 2010, the first full year of the U.S. recovery, went to the top 1 percent richest Americans. (Thanks to our friends at Counterparties for bringing the paper to our attention.)

The research suggests economic growth, even if it gathers speed, will not be nearly sufficient to close the income gap that has been the target of national Occupy protests. Instead, only drastic tax reforms of the sort seen during the 1930s might do the trick.

In 2010, average real income per family grew by 2.3% but the gains were very uneven. Top 1% incomes grew by 11.6% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.2%. Hence, the top 1% captured 93% of the income gains in the first year of recovery. Such an uneven recovery can help explain the recent public demonstrations against inequality. It is likely that this uneven recovery has continued in 2011 as the stock market has continued to recover.

National Accounts statistics show that corporate profits and dividends distributed have grown strongly in 2011 while wage and salary accruals have only grown only modestly. Unemployment and non-employment have remained high in 2011. This suggests that the Great Recession will only depress top income shares temporarily and will not undo any of the dramatic increase in top income shares that has taken place since the 1970s. Indeed, excluding realized capital gains, the top decile share in 2010 is equal to 46.3%, higher than in 2007.

Looking further ahead, based on the U.S. historical record, falls in income concentration due to economic downturns are temporary unless drastic regulation and tax policy changes are implemented and prevent income concentration from bouncing back. Such policy changes took place after the Great Depression during the New Deal and permanently reduced income concentration until the 1970s. In contrast, recent downturns, such as the 2001 recession, lead to only very temporary drops in income concentration.

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