From the late 19th Century “Gilded Age” to the early 20th Century “New Era,” America lived with a lot of income inequality. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the policies of the New Deal closed that range of incomes. This new order continued from the 1930s through the 1970s. From the 1980s to the financial crisis income inequality rose sharply once again. The financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession dented this inequality, but did not reverse it. Nor does it seem likely that it will be substantially reduced under foreseeable conditions.
The low and middle-income groups suffered limited losses from the recession in comparison to upper income groups. The financial crisis and subsequent recession hit upper income group harder than other groups; federal government responses helped lower income groups more than upper income groups, the wealthy still haven’t made up their losses, and inequality has decreased.
The one-percent suffered the largest fall in pre-tax income during the Great Recession. Between 2007 and 2012-2013, the income of the top one ten-thousandth of earners fell 26 percent; the income of the “one-percent” fell 21 percent; the income of the top five percent fell 15 percent; and the bottom 90 percent fell 13 percent. For most poor and middle-class groups, the average income decline was about 10 percent.
In 2007, the pre-tax income of the highest one ten-thousandth of earners peaked at $39.4 million. In 2009 it fell to $21 million. That’s a 46.6 percent drop in income. Most of these losses came on falling stock-prices, so the run-up of the stock market in recent years has done much to restore the income of this group. In 2012 and 2013, it reached $29.2 million. This group is back at about 74 percent of its pre-recession income. Overall, the income of the “one percent” is still about 20 percent below its pre-recession peak.
Long-standing federal government counter-cyclical policies—unemployment payments, food stamps—helped off-set the effects of the Great Recession for low-income groups. The stimulus bill helped as well. After-tax and after-transfer incomes for the middle quintile of income earners fell by 2 percent in comparison to pre-recession levels. After tax and after transfer incomes for the lowest quintile income group actually rose 2.6 percent.
These facts run against the common perception. “Maybe [people haven’t perceived this truth] because many liberals are tempted to believe inequality is always getting worse,…”
Leonhardt sees middle-class incomes as having been “damaged” by income inequality. This, in turn, “has caused wide-spread frustration.” The implications for American politics should be obvious.
It’s hard to sympathize with people whose incomes dropped from almost $40 million a year to barely $20 million a year. They’ll get by, somehow.
Nevertheless, there are issues that are worth some thought.
First, is inequality as such a durable political issue or would most people be satisfied if they experienced a moderate rise in income each year?
Second, why have upper-incomes grown so much since the 1980s while most incomes have stagnated? The answers here are likely to be more complex and the problems less tractable than the political ideologies of left and right would lead us to believe. Increasing inequality has coincided with globalization, two recessions, the aging of the “Baby Boom” generation, problems in adapting the American labor force, and political near-paralysis. What to do?
 David Leonhardt, “Since the Financial Crisis, A Little Less Inequality,” NYT, 17 February 2015.