The inequality problem

LOW INCOME DILEMMA: US lawmakers must focus on real issues like bad schools and broken families before any policy revolution.

SUDDENLY the whole world is talking about income inequality. But, as this debate goes on, it is beginning to look as though the thing is being misconceived. The income inequality debate is confusing matters more than clarifying them, and it is leading us off in unhelpful directions.

In the first place, to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related. What we call “inequality” is caused by two different constellations of problems.

At the top end, there is the growing wealth of the top five per cent of workers. This is linked to things like perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street, assortative mating (highly educated people are more likely to marry each other and pass down their advantages to their children) and the superstar effect (in an Internet economy, a few superstars in each industry can reap global gains while the average performers cannot).

At the bottom end, there is a growing class of people stuck on the margins, generation after generation. This is caused by high dropout rates, the disappearance of low-skill jobs, breakdown in family structures and so on.

If you have a primitive zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them “inequality”.

Second, it leads to ineffective policy responses. If you think the problem is “income inequality,” then the natural response is to increase incomes at the bottom, by raising the minimum wage.

But raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well-off. Joseph J. Sabia of San Diego State University and Richard V. Burkhauser of Cornell looked at the effects of increases in the minimum wage between 2003 and 2007. Consistent with some other studies, they find no evidence that such raises had any effect on the poverty rates.

Comments are closed.