Debating American inequality

In: Uncategorized

11 Feb 2008

Yesterday’s New York Times has an opinion piece by W Michael Cox and Richard Alm, two officials from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, pointing out that consumption inequality in America is far less than income inequality:

“if we compare the incomes of the top and bottom fifths, we see a ratio of 15 to 1. If we turn to consumption, the gap declines to around 4 to 1. A similar narrowing takes place throughout all levels of income distribution. The middle 20 percent of families had incomes more than four times the bottom fifth. Yet their edge in consumption fell to about 2 to 1.

“Let’s take the adjustments one step further. Richer households are larger — an average of 3.1 people in the top fifth, compared with 2.5 people in the middle fifth and 1.7 in the bottom fifth. If we look at consumption per person, the difference between the richest and poorest households falls to just 2.1 to 1. The average person in the middle fifth consumes just 29 percent more than someone living in a bottom-fifth household.

“To understand why consumption is a better guideline of economic prosperity than income, it helps to consider how our lives have changed. Nearly all American families now have refrigerators, stoves, color TVs, telephones and radios. Air-conditioners, cars, VCRs or DVD players, microwave ovens, washing machines, clothes dryers and cellphones have reached more than 80 percent of households.”

However, Paul Krugman, writing in his blog, is sceptical: “there’s no question that consumption inequality at a point in time is less than income inequality. But the CEX study on which they rely is widely believed to be seriously flawed, especially for tracking recent trends. For whatever reason, the survey seems to be missing a lot of consumption growth among the affluent.”

He also points to a useful academic paper (PDF) by Robert Gordon of Northwestern and Ian Dew-Becker of Harvard on “Unresolved issues in the rise of American inequality”.

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