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How American Income Inequality Hit Levels Not Seen Since The Depression

First Posted: 10/22/2010 5:10 pm EDT Updated: 10/19/2012 5:04 pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters, By Emily Kaiser) - In 2007, when the world was on the brink of financial crisis, U.S. income inequality hit its highest mark since 1928, just before the Great Depression.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

Economists are only beginning to study the parallels between the 1920s and the most recent decade to try to understand why both periods ended in financial disaster. Their early findings suggest inequality may not directly cause crises, but it can be a contributing factor.

This raises a host of social, economic and political questions. Should public policy aim to reduce inequality, and if so by what means? Does concentrated wealth at the top of the income spectrum generate asset bubbles, or vice versa? Could raising taxes or interest rates ward off financial meltdowns?

Americans are generally not bothered by inequality because they believe with hard work, they, too, can strike it rich. Government policies aimed at spreading the wealth rarely get much support. (Remember 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign-trail comment about redistributing the wealth catapulted "Joe the Plumber" into media stardom?)

"It is usually only left-leaning rich people that care about inequality in the U.S.," said Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank who studies the economics of happiness.

Those attitudes may be subtly shifting, although it is unclear that this is anything more than just a temporary knee-jerk reaction to the latest bout of turmoil.

Public opinion polls show voters mixed on whether to back higher taxes on the wealthiest households, as President Obama has proposed. The issue is so contentious that Congress put off its decision until after the November 2 midterm elections.

Resentment toward Wall Street is simmering as bankers' paychecks swell to pre-crisis levels while unemployment remains more than twice as high as it was in 2007. Some politicians have been voted out of office simply because they supported the $700 billion bank bailout enacted in 2008.

Yet there is nowhere near majority backing for the sort of progressive New Deal policies passed during the Great Depression, which helped narrow the wealth gap and keep it contained until it resumed widening in the 1970s.

This time around, the wealth disparity narrowed in 2008 because rich households took a heavier hit from the financial crisis, but Census Bureau data shows it turned around immediately. In 2009, inequality was at the highest level since Census began tracking household income in 1967.

America has one of the largest wealth gaps among advanced economies. Based on an inequality measure known as the Gini coefficient, the United States ranks on a par with developing countries such as Ivory Coast, Jamaica and Malaysia, according to the CIA World Factbook.

TRACKING THE DIVIDE

Emmanuel Saez, a University of California, Berkeley, economist who was awarded a 2010 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for his work on income inequality, said recession-induced income declines for the super-rich tend to be fleeting unless there are "drastic" regulatory and tax policy changes.

His research with co-author Thomas Piketty shows the top 1 percentile of households took home 23.5 percent of income in 2007, the largest share since 1928, but that slipped back to 20.9 percent in 2008. (Unlike Census, Saez relies on IRS tax data, which is released with a two-year lag, so he does not yet have figures for 2009.)

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Filed by Ryan McCarthy  |