Income Inequality Still Rising?

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Clusterstock points to the new census data, which show that inequality actually increased in 2008:

The recession has hit middle-income and poor families hardest, widening the economic gap between the richest and poorest Americans as rippling job layoffs ravaged household budgets.

The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans -- those making more than $138,000 each year -- earned 11.4 times the roughly $12,000 made by those living near or below the poverty line in 2008, according to newly released census figures. That ratio was an increase from 11.2 in 2007 and the previous high of 11.22 in 2003.

Household income declined across all groups, but at sharper percentage levels for middle-income and poor Americans. Median income fell last year from $52,163 to $50,303, wiping out a decade's worth of gains to hit the lowest level since 1997.

Poverty jumped sharply to 13.2 percent, an 11-year high.

"No one should be surprised at the increased disparity," said Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University. "Unemployment hurts normal workers who do not have the golden parachutes the folks at the top have."

I'm a little surprised; the work of Piketty and Saez seems to suggest that the incomes of the wealthy are disproportionately affected by crises, because they destroy so much asset value.  This effect may show up in the 2009 numbers, when the full effect of the carnage in the markets will be seen in high-end incomes.

For now, this seems like yet another argument for both extending unemployment benefits, and making them more generous.  Most of the folks I talk to expect 10% unemployment to arrive, and persist.  The people at the bottom of the income distribution have no cushion; they need their salaries to survive.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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