Congressional Budget Office, Financial Crisis, Income Migration, Mark Perry, Middle Class, Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Regime Uncertainty, Scott Sumner, Tax Policy Center, Tax Progressivity, Weak Obama Recovery
The “squeeze” on the U.S. middle class is a fiction. If you don’t believe it, take a look at the “gif” above. It first appeared in The Financial Times (FT) with a misleading description about how “…technological change and globalization drive a wedge between the winners and losers in a splintering US society.” It’s obvious that the middle class, as statically defined by the FT, is shrinking only because it is moving up to higher real income levels (i.e., adjusted for inflation). Mark Perry uses this and other supporting charts in noting that “…so many middle-income households have become better off“. Some of these gains are related to an aging population, but the gains are not remotely consistent with FT’s dramatization. One point of emphasis that the chart should make obvious, but doesn’t quite, is that groups appearing to remain within a particular income range over time are never comprised of the same individuals. There is always movement up and down across all of these groups from year-to-year.
There is a stagnation story here, but it’s more limited than suggested by FT’s narrative. It is twofold: first, the financial crisis in 2007-2009 put a temporary stop to the upward income migration, and its resumption during the Obama presidency has been less robust; second, the very lowest-income segment, $0 – $10,000 of annual income, has expanded in each time interval shown since 1991, from just above 1% of adults to roughly 2.5%. A primary reason for the tepid growth of the U.S. economy since the recession’s trough in 2009, and the weaker migration, has been weak physical investment in the productive economy from its recession lows. That form of spending usually takes a lead role in economic recoveries. A number of observers have attributed the poor performance this time around to “regime uncertainty“, or the risk that regulatory and tax regimes could take an even more destructive toll in the future, essentially devouring returns to capital. As for the increases in the lowest-income sliver of the chart, Scott Sumner says:
“It could be due to expansion of the welfare state, the break-up of the traditional family, or perhaps growth in the underground economy. Nonetheless, it is cause for concern. But it has nothing to do with the mythical decline in the ‘middle class.’“
A related fiction is that the U.S. tax system is unfair to the middle class, and that higher income groups do not pay their “fair share”. This is put to rest in an “Issue Brief” from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (PPF), using data from the Tax Policy Center and the Congressional Budget Office. The analysis shows that while high-income taxpayers benefit from tax breaks, those breaks offset high marginal tax rates and do not diminish the fact that the tax system is highly progressive:
“The Tax Policy Center estimates that 69 percent of taxes collected in 2015 will come from those in the top quintile, or those earning an income above $138,265 annually. Within this group, the top one percent of income earners — those earning more than $709,166 in income per year — will contribute over a quarter of all federal revenues collected.“
Apparently, the PPF analysis does not account for the impact of transfer payments on progressivity, which make average effective tax rates negative at low income levels. However, PPF does acknowledge that the tax system is unnecessarily complex and creates a web of distortions and poor incentives that limit economic growth. It’s a wonder that the dynamic of upward migration in real income was possible at all.