Income and Wealth Inequality

  • Nicholas Bloom
  • Raj Chetty
  • Emmanuel Saez

Leaders: Nicholas Bloom, Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez

The CPI is home to some of the country’s most influential analyses of the income and wealth distribution. The purpose of the Income and Wealth RG is to monitor the ongoing takeoff in income inequality, to better understand its sources, and to analyze its implications for labor market performance, educational attainment, mobility, and more. The following is a sampling of the CPI’s research projects within this area.

Trends in income and wealth inequality: What are the key trends in U.S. income and wealth inequality? The U.S. increasingly looks to Emmanuel Saez and his research team for the latest data on U.S. economic inequality.

Distributional National Accounts: In an ambitious infrastructural project, Emmanuel Saez and his team are building a “Distributional National Accounts” based on tax returns, a data set that will eliminate the current gap between (a) national accounts data based on economic aggregates and (b) inequality analysis that uses micro-level tax data to examine the distribution of income but is not consistent with national aggregates. This new data set will in turn make it possible to evaluate the extent to which economic growth, which has long been represented as a preferred poverty-reduction approach, is indeed delivering on that objective.

The rise of between-firm inequality: How much of the rise in earnings inequality can be attributed to increasing between-firm dispersion in the average wages they pay? This question can be addressed by constructing a matched employer-employee data set for the United States using administrative records.

Rent and inequality: It is increasingly fashionable to argue that “rent” accounts for much of the takeoff in income inequality. The Current Population Survey can be used to assess whether this claim is on the mark. 

Income And Wealth - CPI Research

Title Author Media
Millionaire Migration in California: Administrative Data for Three Waves of Tax Reform Charles Varner, Cristobal Young, Allen Prohofsky

Millionaire Migration in California: Administrative Data for Three Waves of Tax Reform

Author: Charles Varner, Cristobal Young, Allen Prohofsky
Publisher: Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality
Date: 07/2018

Does taxing the rich lead to migration of top income earners? In principle, barriers to migration for the wealthy are low, suggesting that even small changes to top tax rates might set off tax flight. Since top earners are also the largest taxpayers, the potential flight of the rich can set off a race to the bottom, as states compete to attract (or retain) the rich with ever lower tax rates. We draw on big administrative data covering 25 years of all top tax filers in California, showing movement into and out of the state. We examine three waves of tax reform affecting top earners: two “millionaire taxes” passed by voters via the proposition system in 2004 and 2012, and a tax cut passed by legislation in 1996. We emphasize non-parametric, graphical analyses that reveal the evidence with as few assumptions as possible and analogous regression models that confirm the non-parametric results. Both in absolute terms, and compared to sensible control groups, we find little migration response to changes in top tax rates. 

The Gender Earnings Gap in the Gig Economy: Evidence from over a Million Rideshare Drivers Cody Cook, Rebecca Diamond, Jonathan Hall, John A. List, Paul Oyer

The Gender Earnings Gap in the Gig Economy: Evidence from over a Million Rideshare Drivers

Author: Cody Cook, Rebecca Diamond, Jonathan Hall, John A. List, Paul Oyer
Publisher: NBER
Date: 06/2018

The growth of the “gig” economy generates worker flexibility that, some have speculated, will favor women. We explore this by examining labor supply choices and earnings among more than a million rideshare drivers on Uber in the U.S. We document a roughly 7% gender earnings gap amongst drivers. We completely explain this gap and show that it can be entirely attributed to three factors: experience on the platform (learning-by-doing), preferences over where to work (driven largely by where drivers live and, to a lesser extent, safety), and preferences for driving speed. We do not find that men and women are differentially affected by a taste for specific hours, a return to within-week work intensity, or customer discrimination. Our results suggest that there is no reason to expect the “gig” economy to close gender differences. Even in the absence of discrimination and in flexible labor markets, women’s relatively high opportunity cost of non-paid-work time and gender-based differences in preferences and constraints can sustain a gender pay gap.

Distributional National Accounts: Methods and Estimates for the United States Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman

Distributional National Accounts: Methods and Estimates for the United States

Author: Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman
Publisher: Quarterly Journal of Economics
Date: 05/2018

This article combines tax, survey, and national accounts data to estimate the distribution of national income in the United States since 1913. Our distributional national accounts capture 100% of national income, allowing us to compute growth rates for each quantile of the income distribution consistent with macroeconomic growth. We estimate the distribution of both pretax and posttax income, making it possible to provide a comprehensive view of how government redistribution affects inequality. Average pretax real national income per adult has increased 60% from 1980 to 2014, but we find that it has stagnated for the bottom 50% of the distribution at about $16,000 a year. The pretax income of the middle class—adults between the median and the 90th percentile—has grown 40% since 1980, faster than what tax and survey data suggest, due in particular to the rise of tax-exempt fringe benefits. Income has boomed at the top. The upsurge of top incomes was first a labor income phenomenon but has mostly been a capital income phenomenon since 2000. The government has offset only a small fraction of the increase in inequality. The reduction of the gender gap in earnings has mitigated the increase in inequality among adults, but the share of women falls steeply as one moves up the labor income distribution, and is only 11% in the top 0.1% in 2014.

Inequality of Educational Opportunity? Schools as Mediators of the Intergenerational Transmission of Income Jesse Rothstein

Inequality of Educational Opportunity? Schools as Mediators of the Intergenerational Transmission of Income

Author: Jesse Rothstein
Publisher: NBER
Date: 04/2018

Chetty et al. (2014b) show that children from low-income families achieve higher adult incomes, relative to those from higher income families, in some commuting zones (CZs) than in others. I investigate whether children’s educational outcomes help to explain the between-CZ differences. I find little evidence that the quality of schools is a key mechanism driving variation in intergenerational mobility. While CZs with stronger intergenerational income transmission have somewhat stronger transmission of parental income to children’s educational attainment and achievement, on average, neither can explain a large share of the between-CZ variation. Marriage patterns explain two-fifths of the variation in income transmission, human capital accumulation and returns to human capital each explain only one-ninth, and the remainder of the variation (about one-third) reflects differences in earnings between children from high- and low-income families that are not mediated by human capital. This points to job networks and the structure of local labor and marriage markets, rather than the education system, as likely factors influencing intergenerational economic mobility.

State of the Union 2018: Earnings Emmanuel Saez

State of the Union 2018: Earnings

Author: Emmanuel Saez
Publisher: Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality
Date: 03/2018

Gender wage gaps, as conventionally measured, understate the extent of gender inequality in the labor market. When gender differences in wages are examined in conjunction with gender differences in labor force participation, fringe benefits, and self-employment income, men’s average labor earnings are 75 percent higher than women’s. Under this fuller accounting, women thus earn 57 cents for each dollar earned by men. Although women have come to comprise almost 50 percent of the formal labor market, their representation in top labor income groups has risen very slowly. In the most recent available data, just 16 percent of the top 1 percent of labor income earners are women.

income and wealth - CPI Affiliates

Emmanuel Saez's picture Emmanuel Saez Income and Wealth Research Group Leader; Professor of Economics; Director, Center for Equitable Growth
University of California, Berkeley
Nicholas Bloom's picture Nicholas Bloom Income and Wealth Research Group Leader, William D. Eberle Professor of Economics
Stanford University
Raj Chetty's picture Raj Chetty Mobility Research Group Leader, Income and Wealth Research Group Leader, Director of Opportunity Lab
Harvard University
Charles Varner Associate Director, Center on Poverty and Inequality; Pathways Senior Editor
Stanford University
Edward Nathan Wolff's picture Edward Nathan Wolff Professor of Economics, Research Associate, NBER
New York University

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Income And Wealth - Other Research

Title Author Media
The Uptick in Income Segregation: Real Trend or Random Sampling Variation? John R. Logan, Andrew Foster, Jun Ke, Fan Li

The Uptick in Income Segregation: Real Trend or Random Sampling Variation?

Author: John R. Logan, Andrew Foster, Jun Ke, Fan Li
Publisher: American Journal of Sociology
Date: 07/2018

Recent trends in income segregation in metropolitan regions show that, after a decline in the 1990s, there was an increase in 2000–2010 that reinforced concerns about the overall growth in U.S. income inequality since the 1970s. Yet the evidence may be systematically biased to exacerbate the upward trend because the effective sample for the American Community Survey (ACS) is much smaller than it was for the 2000 census to which it is being compared. Apparent changes in disparities across census tracts may result partly from a higher level of sampling variation and bias due to the smaller sample. This study uses 100% microdata from the 1940 census to simulate the impact of different sampling rates and applies those approaches to publicly available data for 2000 and 2007–11. The reduction in sample sizes associated with the ACS appears to exaggerate the evidence for increasing income segregation for all measures tested here.

Children and the Elderly: Wealth Inequality Among America’s Dependents Christina M. Gibson-Davis, Christine Percheski

Children and the Elderly: Wealth Inequality Among America’s Dependents

Author: Christina M. Gibson-Davis, Christine Percheski
Publisher: Demography
Date: 06/2018

Life cycle theory predicts that elderly households have higher levels of wealth than households with children, but these wealth gaps are likely dynamic, responding to changes in labor market conditions, patterns of debt accumulation, and the overall economic context. Using Survey of Consumer Finances data from 1989 through 2013, we compare wealth levels between and within the two groups that make up America’s dependents: the elderly and child households (households with a resident child aged 18 or younger). Over the observed period, the absolute wealth gap between elderly and child households in the United States increased substantially, and diverging trends in wealth accumulation exacerbated preexisting between-group disparities. Widening gaps were particularly pronounced among the least-wealthy elderly and child households. Differential demographic change in marital status and racial composition by subgroup do not explain the widening gap. We also find increasing wealth inequality within child households and the rise of a “parental 1 %.” During a time of overall economic growth, the elderly have been able to maintain or increase their wealth, whereas many of the least-wealthy child households saw precipitous declines. Our findings suggest that many child households may lack sufficient assets to promote the successful flourishing of the next generation.

Household Wealth Trends in the United States, 1962 to 2016: Has Middle Class Wealth Recovered? Edward N. Wolff

Household Wealth Trends in the United States, 1962 to 2016: Has Middle Class Wealth Recovered?

Author: Edward N. Wolff
Publisher: NBER
Date: 11/2017

Asset prices plunged between 2007 and 2010 but then rebounded from 2010 to 2016. The most telling finding is that median wealth plummeted by 44 percent over years 2007 to 2010. The inequality of net worth, after almost two decades of little movement, went up sharply from 2007 to 2010, and relative indebtedness for the middle class expanded. The sharp fall in median net worth and the rise in overall wealth inequality over these years are largely traceable to the high leverage of middle class families and the high share of homes in their portfolio. Mean and median wealth rebounded from 2010 to 2016, by 17 and 28 percent, respectively. While mean wealth surpassed its previous peak in 2007, median wealth was still down by 34 percent. More than 100 percent of the recovery in both was due to a high return on wealth but this factor was offset by negative savings. Relative indebtedness continued to fall for the middle class from 2010 to 2016, and wealth inequality increased somewhat. The racial and ethnic disparity in wealth holdings widened considerably between 2007 and 2016, and the wealth of households under age 45 declined in relative terms.

Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016 Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, Melissa A. Kollar

Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016

Author: Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, Melissa A. Kollar
Publisher: U.S. Census Bureau
Date: 09/2017

Summary of findings:

Real median household income increased 3.2 percent between 2015 and 2016.2 This is the second consecutive annual increase in median household income.

The number of full-time, year-round workers increased by 2.2 million in 2016.

The 2016 female-to-male earnings ratio was 0.805, a 1.1 percent increase from the 2015 ratio. This is the first time the female-to-male earnings ratio has experienced an annual increase since 2007.

The official poverty rate decreased by 0.8 percentage points between 2015 and 2016. At 12.7 percent, the 2016 poverty rate is not statistically different from 2007 (12.5 percent), the year before the most recent recession.

The number of people in poverty fell by 2.5 m

Consumption and Income Inequality in the U.S. Since the 1960s Bruce D. Meyer, James X. Sullivan

Consumption and Income Inequality in the U.S. Since the 1960s

Author: Bruce D. Meyer, James X. Sullivan
Publisher: NBER
Date: 08/2017

Official income inequality statistics indicate a sharp rise in inequality over the past five decades. These statistics do not accurately reflect inequality because income is poorly measured, particularly in the tails of the distribution, and current income differs from permanent income, failing to capture the consumption paid for through borrowing and dissaving and the consumption of durables such as houses and cars. We examine income inequality between 1963 and 2014 using the Current Population Survey and consumption inequality between 1960 and 2014 using the Consumer Expenditure Survey. We construct improved measures of consumption, focusing on its well-measured components that are reported at a high and stable rate relative to national accounts. While overall income inequality (as measured by the 90/10 ratio) rose over the past five decades, the rise in overall consumption inequality was small. The patterns for the two measures differ by decade, and they moved in opposite directions after 2006. Income inequality rose in both the top and bottom halves of the distribution, but increases in consumption inequality are only evident in the top half. The differences are also concentrated in single parent families and single individuals. Although changing demographics can account for some of the changes in consumption inequality, they account for little of the changes in income inequality. Consumption smoothing cannot explain the differences between income and consumption at the very bottom, but the declining quality of income data can. Asset price changes likely account for some of the differences between the measures in recent years for the top half of the distribution.