This text was adapted by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensee. Preface



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The Role of Tax Policy


Economic inequality in the United States has increased during the last three decades. The loss of manufacturing jobs and unions accounts for some of this increase. However, a primary reason for the rising inequality has been tax policy. More specifically, the federal government has implemented steep cuts in the highest tax rates for income from salaries and wages and especially in tax rates for income from dividends and capital gains (Hacker & Pierson, 2011). [30]This latter cut is especially important because dividends and capital gains account for a much larger share of the income of wealthy families than the income of ordinary families. To be more specific, dividends and capital gains account for only 0.7 percent of the income of the bottom four-fifths of the nation’s families, but for 18.8 percent of the income of the top fifth, 38.2 percent of the top 1 percent, and a striking 51.9 percent of the top 0.1 percent (Hungerford, 2011). [31] In a related statistic, three-fourths of all capital gains are received by the top 1 percent (Krugman, 2012). [32] Relative to its national wealth, the United States is the lowest-taxed industrial democracy in the world (Leonhardt, 2012). [33]

Keep this context in mind as we note that tax cuts in 2003 lowered the tax rate for dividends and capital gains from 28 percent to 15 percent. Meanwhile, the top tax rate for income from salaries and wages is 35 percent. Thus many very wealthy families and individuals pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes than many middle- and upper-middle-class families do because so much of the wealthy families’ income is from dividends and capital gains. In fact, the four hundred wealthiest families and individuals in the country pay only about 18 percent of their income in federal tax (Krugman, 2012). [34] As the director of Citizens for Tax Justice explained, “The low taxes on capital gains and dividends are why people who make a ton of money, which is largely from investment income, do awfully well. The Warren Buffetts, the hedge fund managers—they pay really low tax rates” (Confessore, Kocieniewski, & Parker, 2011, p. A1). [35] This fact prompts a critical question from Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics: “Is there a good reason why the rich should bear a startlingly light tax burden?” His answer: “Such low taxes on the very rich are indefensible” (Krugman, 2012, p. A27). [36]

The lowering of tax rates has helped make the nation’s wealthiest families even wealthier. After adjusting for inflation, their after-tax income grew by a much greater amount than that for the poorest families from 1979 to 2007. Income grew by only 18 percent for the poorest fifth but by 65 percent for the wealthiest fifth (excluding the top 1 percent), and it also grew by a whopping 275 percent for families in the top 1 percent (Congressional Budget Office, 2011). [37] As a result, economic inequality increased. Figure 12.6 "Growth of Economic Inequality in the United States (Percentage Share of Total National Income)"shows that wealthiest 1 percent now have a much larger share of the nation’s total posttax income than they did in 1979, while the poorest fifth have a lower share. As the saying goes, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

Figure 12.6 Growth of Economic Inequality in the United States (Percentage Share of Total National Income)

http://images.flatworldknowledge.com/barkansoc/barkansoc-fig12_006.jpg

Source: Economic Policy Institute. (2011). Share of total income by income fifths and a breakdown of the top 20%. The State of working America. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://stateofworkingamerica.org/charts/household-income-shares-1979-2007.


The Impact of Economic Inequality


Why should we care if economic inequality has increased and if the United States has the highest degree of inequality of all industrial democracies? One answer is that it is a matter of fairness. The United States is not only the wealthiest nation in the world; it is also a nation that historically has stressed that everyone is created equal and that everyone has an equal opportunity to pursue the “American dream” by becoming economically successful. Against this backdrop, a high degree of economic inequality is simply “un-American” and unfair.

Beyond this rather philosophical critique are more practical considerations. First, a high degree of economic inequality is strongly associated with a high degree of poverty and near poverty: If the rich are getting richer, there is normally less wealth to “go around,” and the poor get poorer. For the same reason, high economic inequality is also associated with a shrinking of the middle class. In the United States, as both poverty (and near poverty) and wealth have increased, the size of the middle class has reduced, as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers has emphasized (Krueger, 2012). [38]

Second, a high degree of economic inequality is also associated with loweconomic mobility (the movement of people up or down the socioeconomic ladder) (Krueger, 2012). [39] As noted earlier, the United States is the most economically unequal of all industrial democracies. It also has lower economic mobility: Americans born into poverty or near poverty are less likely than their counterparts in other democracies to be able to move up the socioeconomic ladder (DeParle, 2012). [40]

Next, high economic inequality may slow economic growth. This possible effect occurs for at least three reasons (Krueger, 2012). [41] First, the wealthy tend to save their money rather than spend it. Second, a shrinking middle class means there is less spending by the middle class to stimulate the economy. Third, workers’ morale is likely to be lower in a society with higher economic inequality, and their lower morale decreases their productivity. As the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers has stated, “The evidence suggests that a growing middle class is good for the economy, and that a more fair distribution of income would hasten economic growth. Businesses would benefit from restoring more fairness to the economy by having more middle class customers, more stable markets, and improved employee morale and productivity” (Krueger, 2012). [42]

Finally, many social scientists consider nations with high degrees of economic inequality to be “unhealthy societies,” to quote the title of a book on this issue (Wilkinson, 1996). [43] Economic inequality is thought to undermine social cohesion and increase polarization, and also to cause other problems (Barash, 2012; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2011). [44] Among the world’s industrial nations, higher degrees of economic inequality are associated with worse physical and mental health, lower life expectancy, and higher rates of violent crime. High economic inequality, then, is a matter not only of fairness but also of life and death.


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