Thanks to James Pethokoukis for his ongoing efforts to cite empirical evidence that exposes many of the myths about “exploding income inequality” and “wage stagnation” in America (see recent posts here, here, here, and here).
In an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily last year, Thomas Sowell made this insightful comment about the issue (emphasis added):
Only by focusing on the income brackets, instead of the actual people moving between those brackets, have the intelligentsia been able to verbally create a “problem” for which a “solution” is necessary. They have created a powerful vision of “classes” with “disparities” and “inequities” in income, caused by “barriers” created by “society.” But the routine rise of millions of people out of the lowest quintile over time makes a mockery of the “barriers” assumed by many, if not most, of the intelligentsia.
As I reported on the Enterprise Blog last March, the dynamism of the U.S. labor market that Sowell describes is generally underappreciated, and has received almost no attention from those complaining about income inequality and stagnant household income. Contrary to prevailing public opinion that households get stuck at a given income level for decades or generations, there is strong empirical evidence that households move up and down the economic ladder over even very short periods of time.
For example, recent research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is summarized in the table below, based on income data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics that followed the same households from 2001 to 2007. The empirical results answer the question: For households that started in a given earnings quintile (20 percent group) in 2001, what percentage of those households moved to a different income quintile over the next six years?
Below are some of the main findings about the income mobility of American households over a short, six-year period from 2001 to 2007 based on the Minneapolis Fed study:
1. Looking across the first row of data in the table from left to right, we can see that for those U.S. households that were in the lowest earnings quintile (bottom 20 percent) in 2001, only 56 percent of those household remained in that same income quintile six years later in 2007, and almost half—44 percent—had moved up to one of the four higher income quintiles by 2007. Five percent of the lowest-income households in 2001 had moved up to one of the top two quintiles by 2007.
2. Looking across the fifth row of data from right to left reveals that of those households in the highest earnings quintile (top 20 percent) in 2001, only 66 percent remained there six years later and 34 percent had moved down to one of the four lower income quintile by 2007. Five percent of those highest-income households had moved all the way to the bottom income quintile in only six years.
3. For those households in the middle-income quintile in 2001, 42 percent remained in the same quintile in 20007, about one-third (32 percent) moved to a higher-income quintile, and slightly more than one-fourth (27 percent) moved to a lower-income quintile.
4. The bottom row in the chart shows that for households in the second, middle, and fourth income quintiles in 2001, more than half of each group moved to a different earnings quintile by 2007 (61 percent, 58 percent, and 55 percent, respectively).
Bottom Line: In the discussions on income inequality and wage stagnation, we frequently hear about the “top 1%” or the “top 10%” or the “bottom 99%” and the public has started to believe that those groups operate like closed private clubs that contain the exact same people or households every year. But the empirical evidence displayed above tells a much different story of dynamic change in the labor market—people and households move up and down the earnings quintiles throughout their careers and lives. Many of today’s low-income households will rise to become tomorrow’s high-income households, and some will even eventually be in the “top 10% or “top 1%.” And many of today’s “top 1%” or top income quintile members are tomorrow’s middle or lower class households, reflecting the significant upward and downward mobility in the dynamic U.S labor market – an important point in any discussion about “exploding income inequality.”