It is well understood that income inequality is increasing in the U.S. and that there are lots of reasons for it. Globalization provides low cost goods from around the world and thus puts pressure on low-wage workers in our own country. Rapid technological advancement puts a high premium on educational attainment and skill acquisition and thus helps individuals who are highly motivated to succeed. The Great Recession and our slow recovery from it have held back the growth of employment and wages increases for middle- and lower-income workers. Increasing income inequality is a pernicious social condition and has lots of unpleasant consequences. A new study of U.S. counties has shown that there is a strong correlation between more inequality in a particular geographical area and shorter average live spans. It is quite reasonable to expect that higher-income people will be more health conscious than lower- income people. Excessive inequality is bad for lots of reasons.
The question is what we can do about it. Here are two good ways to address it:
Faster economic growth would help a lot. The American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain has recently proposed a fairly modest plan for increasing employment by cutting tax deductions for the wealthy, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for the poor and at the same time decreasing deficit spending. I have made a more substantial proposal along the same lines.
Boost educational performance across the board. College-ready middle class kids will take care of themselves so the emphasis should be on the 70% of young adults who will not go to a four year college. There are lots of good jobs available for the highly skilled and so we need more career education in high school. We also need more early childhood education to prepare kids from low-income families to get off to a good start in elementary school.
Increasing economic growth and expanding educational opportunities for the non-college bound will require little, if any, new federal spending. Such policies as above are simply common sense ways to reduce income inequality and achieve a more inclusive society.
The Economic Policy Institute has just issued a provocative new report, “Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge”. It is based on the now widely accepted view, as summarized in the chart below, that wages for the typical (i.e. median, not average) American worker have been stagnant since the early 1970’s, even though productivity has continued to increase at its historical rate. First of all, the authors make reasonable arguments that:
The slumping of hourly wage growth for the vast majority explains the overall trends in income inequality.
Wage stagnation stalls progress in reducing poverty.
Wages are the root of economic security for the vast majority. This includes the fact that Social Security benefits depend upon wage earnings before retirement.
Then they ask: “Why has wage growth faltered for the vast majority, and what can be done?” Here is where the report becomes controversial!
The authors do agree that globalization of markets and technological change have contributed to the wage growth slowdown but argue that this overlooks the impact of labor market and tax policy and business practices as follows:
Falling top tax rates have increased the income share of the top 1 percent.
The Federal Reserve has prioritized low rates of inflation over low rates of unemployment in recent decades and high unemployment suppresses wage growth.
The erosion of the inflation adjusted minimum wage and the share of the workforce represented by a union explain much of the entire rise of wage inequality over this time period.
The authors are completely correct that stagnant wages for American workers is a critical, even “central,” problem facing the economy at the present time. The question, of course, is how to address this problem most effectively. In my opinion, the authors have completely neglected to take into account how a faster rate of economic growth would contribute to a solution of the problem and how this could be accomplished. I will address this question in my next post in a couple of days.
They conclude by saying that this report is only the first in a multiyear research and public education initiative of the EPI. We have a lot to look forward to!