New data show top 10 percent saw income gains five times as large as bottom 50 percent since 1979

Data underscore the need for changes to how GDP is measured

July 1, 2019
Contact: Erica Handloff, 202-545-3354 or

WASHINGTON – The Washington Center for Equitable Growth released new data this morning revealing how the economy performed for Americans up and down the income ladder in 2015 and 2016. The new estimates come from University of California, Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman and serve as one of the only tools policymakers have to measure who prospers when the economy grows.

Between 1979 and 2016, U.S. national income grew by nearly 60 percent. The new data show that over that time, workers in the bottom half of the income distribution saw their incomes rising by 22 percent, while those in the top 10 percent of earners had income gains nearly five times higher, rising by 100 percent.

2016 was an especially poor year for working class Americans in the bottom 20 percent of income, who saw their incomes decline by more than 3 percent.

Historically, policymakers have relied on Gross Domestic Product to measure the state of the U.S. economy. But in today’s era of increasing inequality, aggregate GDP statistics do not reflect the lived reality of most Americans, underscoring the need for these new data.

Following is a statement by Equitable Growth Executive Director Heather Boushey:

“These new data from the research team at UC-Berkeley serve as the latest reminder of why we need to upgrade our tools for measuring how the economy is performing for Americans at all income levels. Policymakers get a report about changes in America’s gross national income, but we never talk about how that income is distributed.

Our statistical agencies do a great job, but rising inequality has meant that the topline data are no longer enough. Gross Domestic Product used to be highly representative of the lived experiences of most American families, but the research tells us that inequality subverts, distorts, and obstructs our whole economy. A first step to addressing this is implementing new statistics to tell us how Americans across all income brackets—high, middle, and low—are faring in the current economy.

The Measuring Real Income Growth Act” has been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The legislation would require the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to report how growth is distributed among workers at different levels of income. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth commends the introduction of this legislation and urges Congress to pass it.

The time is now to change the way we conceptualize and measure economic progress. Until policymakers have access to more than just the topline indicators, they will remain hindered in their ability to promote an economy that works for the many, not just the few.”

For more from Boushey on what the new data mean, click here.


The Washington Center for Equitable Growth is a nonprofit research and grantmaking organization dedicated to advancing evidence-backed ideas and policies that promote strong, stable, and broad-based economic growth. For more information, see and follow us on Twitter and Facebook @equitablegrowth.

July 1, 2019

Connect with us!

Explore the Equitable Growth network of experts around the country and get answers to today's most pressing questions!

Get in Touch