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The debate over inequality

Data: Indeed analysis of BLS monthly jobs data; Chart: Axios Visuals

Last week, we reported that the wage inequality gap in the U.S., a primary source of the polarization among Americans, has been shrinking: For five straight quarters, wages have been growing the most for U.S. workers with only a high school diploma.

Data: Indeed analysis of BLS monthly jobs data; Chart: Axios Visuals

But readers pushed back:

  • "Surely you're kidding?" wrote James Harvey, executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable. The percentage wage increase is better for high school graduates, he said, but the dollar increase still favors the rich: a 3.3% raise for someone making $20,000 a year is $660—only an eighth of the $5,000 raise going to someone earning $500,000 and getting a 1% increase.
  • In a phone call, Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel told me, "The 1% is doing a lot better, and for the 30% and 40% at the bottom, it keeps getting worse."

Quick take: The times do indisputably favor the rich:

  • When adjusted for inflation, U.S. wages are up only 10% from almost a half-century ago.
  • Meanwhile, wealth held by the top 1% has surged: it rose to 38.6% of the total in 2016, from 36.3% in 2013, the Fed said in a report in September, while the bottom 90%'s wealth has fallen for almost three decades—last year, it was 22.8% of the total, compared with 33.2% in 1989.
  • FoW reader W.Spackman linked to this July report by Deloitte, which said income inequality today is comparable with the Gilded Age of robber barons, in the 19th century (Figure 3).

And Charlie Allenson, a FoW reader in New York, made another point: "Many of those chronically not working are not getting back to work. Namely, those more 'mature' workers. Ageism rolls on. Personal example: People look at my website and love my work. They meet me, see the gray hair and suddenly they're going in a 'different direction.' This is a constant for me. And it sucks."

But there are in fact signs of an improvement in the fortunes of ordinary people, and wages and salaries are among them, says Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed.com, the jobs listing website, who wrote the blog post on which we were reporting. In an email exchange, Kolko told me:

  • Harvey and Kasriel are correct to single out the vast concentration of income at the top, comprised largely of non-wage earnings like capital gains, interest and dividends—which combined are how the wealthy make most of their money.
  • But wages earned for work are another lens into the inequality story, and in that realm, the gap indeed has narrowed.
  • The shrinking wage gap is important to watch because wages and salaries are a large component of pre-tax money income, which includes interest, dividends and income from property. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the proportion at 76.8%. (see pages 8-9 in this BLS report).

The Fed, too, has noted the trend favoring less-educated workers. According to a Fed report released in September, income rose from 2013 through 2016 for all income groups, after accounting for inflation, which was a change from the prior three years, when income was stagnant. But the highest growth — an average of 25% — was among families without a high school diploma; in the 2010 to 2013 period, income fell for these workers, the Fed said.

Thought bubble: Inequality is not an absolute metric. If it were, ordinary people could legitimately lash out about wealth at the top regardless of how they themselves were faring. The rise of wages at the bottom and in the middle is slow, and the trend could halt—that is a point that Kolko makes. But it remains notable that the numbers are no longer going only in one, inexorable direction—there are metrics pointing to growing wages and salaries, and more jobs, for those whom the economy has been leaving behind.