urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Inequality

In the past several decades, income inequality in the United States has increased dramatically. Over the same period, year-to-year variation in individual incomes—or income volatility—has increased more modestly, while Americans’ economic mobility—movements up or down the economic ladder—has changed little.

Inequality and equality can take many forms: equality of opportunity is desirable, but equality of outcomes (like money income) might not be, if the inequality motivates entrepreneurial activity and hard work that benefit society as a whole. Some advocate focusing not on income inequality but on poverty.

On the other hand, the greatest increases in inequality have come at the top, with implications for policy and politics, as most of the country’s resources are concentrated in fewer hands.  Tax policy, asset-building policy, and policies directly affecting low-income working families are among the most salient levers.


Post-War Growth in U.S. Income Inequality
Inequality was relatively stable from 1947 to 1970 but increased steadily from 1970 to 2010; the 95th percentile of real family income increased from $70 thousand in 1947 to $121 thousand in 1970 and $200 thousand in 2010, while the 60th percentile increased from $30 thousand in 1947 to $57 thousand in 1970 and $74 thousand in 2010, and the 20th percentile increased from $14 thousand in 1947 to $26 thousand in 1970 and $27 thousand in 2010.


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Featured Publications

Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking Up from the American Dream (Research Report)
Gregory Acs

A middle-class upbringing does not guarantee the same status over the course of a lifetime. A third of Americans raised in the middle class (between the 30th and 70th percentiles of the income distribution) fall out of the middle as adults. Marital status, education, test scores and drug use have a strong influence on whether a middle-class child loses economic ground as an adult. Race is a factor only for men. There is a gender gap in downward mobility from the middle, but it is driven entirely by a disparity between white men and white women.

A Detailed Picture of Intergenerational Transmission of Human Capital (Research Report)
Austin Nichols, Melissa Favreault

Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, we consider how parental education relates to four outcomes in the children's generation: education, lifetime earnings, health, and wealth. By focusing on parents' and children's ranks, we characterize relative mobility in terms of distributions of outcomes and can see patterns that even a relatively disaggregated analysis, like a quintile-based transition matrix, can obscure. Our results show relatively high intergenerational mobility except at extremes, where very low-ranked parents are much more likely to have very low-ranked children and very high-ranked parents are much more likely to have very high-ranked children.

Rising Tides and Retirement: The Aggregate and Distributional Effects of Differential Wage Growth on Social Security (Research Report)
Melissa Favreault

Recent growth in wage inequality has important implications for Social Security solvency and benefit distributions. Because only earnings below the taxable maximum are subject to payroll taxes, concentrated wage growth among higher earners generates less revenue than more evenly distributed growth. Social Security's progressive benefit formula increases benefit payouts when shares of workers with low wages grow. We use a dynamic microsimulation model to examine aggregate and distributional consequences of alternative scenarios about future wage growth. We find that relatively modest changes in assumptions about wage differentials generate marked changes in projected Social Security benefits, poverty, and long-term financing status.




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Servicing Is an Underappreciated Constraint on Credit Access (Research Brief)
Laurie Goodman

The heightened and uncertain cost of servicing delinquent mortgage loans is a significant, although underappreciated, constraint on access to credit. Lenders can price loans to reflect the anticipated servicing costs, but it is very difficult to price for the uncertain costs of default servicing. The penalties resulting from not meeting the GSE and FHA timelines, along with restrictive and anachronistic limits on reasonable foreclosure expenses, create uncertainties that are difficult to quantify and price for. The result: lenders forgo lending to borrowers more likely to go delinquent. The FHFA has made great strides with recent changes to compensatory fees, but more needs to be done. Servicing delinquent FHA loans presents an even greater challenge. To expand the tight credit box, these servicing issues must be addressed.

Posted to Web: December 16, 2014Publication Date: December 16, 2014

A Better Measure of Mortgage Application Denial Rates (Research Report)
Wei Li, Laurie Goodman

The Housing Finance Policy Center’s new measure of the rate at which mortgage applications are denied – the real denial rate (RDR)– improves upon existing denial rate measures by considering only low-credit-profile applicants. The RDR better tracks trends in credit accessibility over time and reveals that the conventional channel has had a consistently tighter credit box over time than the government channel. The RDR also shows much smaller racial and ethnic distinctions in mortgage denial rates over time than are shown by the traditional measure.

Posted to Web: December 02, 2014Publication Date: December 02, 2014

Municipal Debt: What Does It Buy and Who Benefits? (Research Report)
Harvey Galper, Kim Rueben, Richard C. Auxier, Amanda Eng

This paper examines the incidence of the federal income tax exemption of interest on state and local bonds, applying a fixed-savings, simplified general equilibrium approach to estimate incidence effects on both the sources and uses of income. In contrast to traditional empirical work that allocates the benefit of tax exemption only to current holders of tax-exempt bonds based on current interest rates, we incorporate the fact that the existence of tax exemption causes the taxable interest rate to rise and the tax-exempt rate to fall. As a consequence, on the sources side, tax exemption can increase after-tax income for holders of both taxable and taxexempt bonds. On the uses side, consumers of both private and public goods are affected by the higher cost of funds to private and federal government borrowers, the lower cost of funds to state and local borrowers, and the lower cost of funds to private-sector entities with access to the proceeds of tax-exempt borrowing. Overall, higher income individuals remain the primary beneficiaries of tax exemption on the sources side with this new approach, but less so than under the traditional approach. On the uses side, households who consume a relatively large share of state and local public services, such as those with several school-age children, receive significant net benefits.

Posted to Web: October 29, 2014Publication Date: October 29, 2014

State Economic Monitor: October 2014 (Series/State Economic Monitor)
Richard C. Auxier

Most states ended the summer of 2014 on a positive economic note. Up from 14 states a year earlier, 25 states reported August unemployment rates below 6 percent. Every state but Alaska added jobs within the last year. But some troubling signs remain. Inflation-adjusted average weekly wages declined or did not change in 26 states. The latest issue of the State Economic Monitor describes economic and fiscal trends at the state level, highlighting particular differences across the states in employment, state government finances, and housing conditions. This issue also includes a special section on state minimum wages.

Posted to Web: October 16, 2014Publication Date: October 16, 2014

Who Benefits from Asset-Building Tax Subsidies? (Fact Sheet / Data at a Glance)
C. Eugene Steuerle, Benjamin H. Harris, Signe-Mary McKernan, Caleb Quakenbush, Caroline Ratcliffe

Tax subsidies for asset building totaled $384 billion in 2013, with the vast majority going toward subsidizing homeownership and retirement saving. This factsheet summarizes distributional estimates of major tax subsidies for homeownership, retirement saving, and higher education. Low- and moderate-income households benefit very little from these subsidies. For example, about 70 percent of the mortgage interest deduction and employer-sponsored retirement plan subsidies go to the top 20 percent of tax payers while the bottom 20 percent receive less than one percent. Upper-income households, which likely require less incentive to save, may merely shift assets from unsubsidized to subsidized accounts.

Posted to Web: September 24, 2014Publication Date: September 24, 2014

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