How does the rise in economic inequality affect workers and their families at the bottom of the income ladder? To begin to approach an answer to such a question, it is important to first understand the facts on the ground. What have these workers and their families experienced over the past several decades? A common but deeply flawed measure of their wellbeing over the years is the official poverty rate, which fluctuates over a fairly narrow band but remained essentially flat since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s.1

This is not the forum to rehearse the litany of reasons why the official poverty rate is fundamentally flawed. But perhaps its biggest shortcoming is that it doesn’t count the many resources directed toward low-income families when measuring income. These resources include in-kind benefits such as supplemental nutrition assistance (what we used to call food stamps) and housing assistance, but also after-tax benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.

When these resources are properly accounted for in a poverty measure, my colleagues and I at Columbia University demonstrate that poverty rates fell by about 40 percent over the past half century, from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent today.2 We have made more progress than we thought in fighting poverty in the United States since the 1960s. That is the good news. The bad news is that the declines I note above have come entirely because of the work of government policies and programs—not because low-income workers and families have succeeded in the workplace.

Indeed, aside from the latter half of the 1990s, low-income workers and families generally fared poorly relative to their more advantaged peers in the middle class and especially compared to the wealthy in terms of income growth. Absent resources from government programs, poverty (properly measured) would have actually increased between the 1960s and today—from 27 percent to 29 percent, equal to about 37 million people.3

Focusing exclusively on numbers and percentages surrounding a specific poverty line, however, obscures other trends in income and the wellbeing of the poor. Recent data that my colleagues and I are collecting for a new longitudinal study of New York City residents tells us that actual levels of material hardship—the inability to meet one’s routine expenses—are actually quite a bit higher than poverty rates, even as properly measured. This means we need to think about those at the bottom of the income spectrum as not just those who fall below some predetermined poverty line but also those who find themselves consistently struggling to keep pace with what it costs to get by in contemporary society.

So a key question is whether the run-up in income inequality over the past five decades is a driving force of the economic woes of the less fortunate or simply another measure of it. The poor are doing better than in the past thanks to government programs that help alleviate poverty and give them the opportunity to climb the bottom rungs of the income ladder, but at the same time we know the fortunes of those at the top are far outpacing those at the bottom.

If, as some contend, the wellbeing of the poor is dampened by the rise in inequality, then we are justified in attempting to reduce income inequality in order to improve the lots of the less fortunate. But if the two are merely jointly determined—say by the rising returns on a better education that are (partially) the result of market forces—then reducing income inequality by itself is likely do little to improve the long-run wellbeing of the poor aside from helping the poor to get by and consume more from their income.

What do we know about whether rising income inequality in the United States reduces the wellbeing of the poor? Unfortunately, not very much. Cornell University economist Robert Frank argues that as inequality rises we see a pattern of so-called “expenditure cascades” as people further down the economic ladder essentially try to consume enough to “keep up with the Jones’” just above them.4 University of Chicago economist Marianne Bertrand finds that rising inequality leads to reductions in disposable income further down the income ladder, though she is not explicitly focused on the wellbeing of the poor.5

But these studies spark very provocative questions. Does increased inequality not only lead to an increase in consumer prices but also changes in consumption patterns in a way that causes income to not go as far for the poor as it might? And do these processes have actual negative effects on the overall wellbeing of the poor? Identifying such effects using common econometric methods, however, remains challenging.

So it is still an open question whether rising levels of inequality harm less-skilled and lower-earning families. Even if government programs and policies keep disadvantaged individuals and families afloat, sociologists still might question whether income that comes once a year in the form of tax refunds or once a month in the form of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program card is as useful as income from a regular paycheck, which provides benefits both remunerative and potentially cumulative, given that over time, that job may turn into a career.

What is ultimately most important is not whether people have enough resources over the course of a year to meet a somewhat arbitrary line of what experts think they need. Rather, we need to know whether people are truly able to harness their resources to meet both their daily and monthly expenses while simultaneously investing in their own and their children’s future.

In short, understanding whether and how economic inequality affects those at the bottom of the income spectrum is central to the success and wellbeing of our nation.

  1. Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 (Washinton, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013), http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf.
  2. Christopher Wimer et al., Trends in Poverty with an Anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure, IRP Discussion Paper (Madison, WI: Institute for Research on Poverty, December 2013).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Robert Frank, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).
  5. Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse, Trickle-Down Consumption, Working Paper (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2013), http://www.nber.org/papers/w18883.