Would you embrace a policy that increased income for poor Americans by 10 percent if it also happened to increase income for rich Americans by 15 percent?
Some of our left-leaning friends (including at the IMF!), however, are so fixated on inequality that they are willing to deprive the poor so long as higher-income people have even larger losses (Margaret Thatcher nailed them on this issue).
Let’s look at some analysis of this issue.
The Wall Street Journal has an editorial that starts by highlighting some good economic news:
“… low- and middle-income folks are reaping more economic benefits than during the Obama years. … Worker earnings increased by 3.4% while the poverty rate declined 0.5 percentage points to 11.8%, the lowest level since 2001. Benefit rolls are shrinking as low-income workers earn more. … the number of full-time, year-round workers increased by 2.3 million in 2018, and employment gains were biggest among minority female-led households. The share of workers in female-led households who worked full-time year-round increased by 4.2 percentage points among blacks and 3.6 percentage points among Hispanics. … The jobless rate for black women last month fell to a historic low of 4.4% and neared a nadir for Hispanic women at 4.2%. … The share of households making less than $35,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars has fallen 1.2 percentage points since 2016 while those earning between $50,000 and $150,000 and more than $200,000 have both increased by 0.8 percentage points.”
It then makes an all-important point that policymakers should fixate on growth rather than inequality if the goal is to help he less fortunate:
“Democrats focus on income inequality … What really matters for a healthy democratic society, however, are economic opportunity and income mobility. … The Obama policy mix, which Democrats want to return to only more so, put a priority on reducing inequality rather than increasing economic growth. But higher taxes, hyper-regulation and income redistribution resulted in slower growth and more inequality during the Obama Presidency. … This is a lesson for the left and those on the big-government right who want to use tax policy and subsidies to redistribute income to reduce inequality. Policies that hurt growth hurt lower-income workers the most.”
José Ponce, in a column for FEE, sagely observes that “Gini” numbers can be very misleading because they tell us nothing about a society’s overall prosperity.
“… inequality on its own is insufficient for any means of understanding. By definition, it measures the level of income or wealth that a group of people receive or own relative to another group of people within a society. The key word here is relative. That means it provides no information in regards to whether the bottom quintile has a low or high level of income or about the quality of life … For instance, Cuba, with a Gini index of 0.38 and Liberia with 0.32 have much less inequality than the highly-developed Singapore and Hong Kong, with Gini coefficients of 0.45 and 0.53, respectively. Citizens in a poor country with low inequality are equitably poor. … Elaborating on this point, rising inequality may not necessarily be a negative outcome just as declining inequality may not necessarily be positive. A developing society where both the rich and the poor have growing incomes, but the rich are rising faster than the poor, will experience a surge in inequality. However, since both the rich and the poor have increased incomes, everyone is better off than before.”
Let’s close with a chart from Mark Perry showing that ever-greater numbers of Americans are climbing the income ladder.
P.S. This data from China is the most powerful and persuasive that I’ve seen on why growth matters far more than inequality.
P.P.S. This bit of satire also illustrates why inequality numbers are grossly misleading.
Daniel J. Mitchell is a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy and is Chairman of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. Mitchell is a strong advocate of a flat tax and international tax competition.