Poverty and Income Inequality Don’t Just Happen

Now, here’s an interesting fact to chew over. If the wealth in this country were evenly distributed among adults, each of us would have $301,000.

By this measure, we’re not the wealthiest country in the world. That distinction goes to tiny Switzerland, according to the latest Global Wealth report from Credit Suisse.

But we’ve got, by far and away, the highest percent of millionaires (42%) — and an even larger share (46.5%) of all the people with more than $50 million in the 19 countries the Credit Suisse analysts could compile data far.

At the same time, we’ve got 15% of the population — 46.5 million people — so poor as to fall below the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds.

Blogger Matt Bruenig crunched some numbers and found that it would take $175.3 billion to lift every one of them out of poverty, as officially defined.

That may seem like a great deal of money. But it’s only a bit over 1% of the value of the goods and services our country produced last year — and according to my number-crunching, only about $3,770 per person.

Now, I don’t want to lend credibility to the troll who alleges that I’m a “commie terrorist,” but these numbers do get the mind churning.

On the one hand, the Credit Suisse figures underscore how unevenly wealth is distributed. On the other hand, Bruenig’s indicate how relatively little we’d have to redistribute to end poverty — well, not really, but at least according to the measure we use.

As Bruenig says, we have mechanisms to do this. We could, for example, expand the refundable Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. We could expand SNAP (the food stamp program), instead of arguing over how much to cut it.

We could, Bruenig adds, establish a “mild basic income and a negative income tax.” These aren’t radically leftist notions.

Economist Milton Friedman, whom no one would call a leftist, proposed a negative income tax back in 1962. As he described it, people would file tax returns and get a refund of sorts for some portion of however much their income fell below the threshold at which they would owe anything.

This ultimately became the basis for the EITC, but the tax credit helps only people who work and their dependents. And it does very little for parents who earn very little and for those who are childless, even if their earnings are fairly decent.

Though Friedman viewed the NIT as an alternative to existing welfare programs, it wouldn’t have to be. On the other hand, it could replace them if the refunds were big enough to pay for basic needs.

I know economists have concerns about disincentives to work — as, of course, do policymakers. Comfortable hammock and all that.

And perhaps there’s something to this, though I note that we don’t seem to have these concerns when the issue is what are effectively income supports for people who are already well-off, e.g., the various tax benefits to homeowners.

These alone would pay for more than half the cost of lifting everybody out of poverty, according to Joint Taxation Committee estimates that Bruenig cites.

The basic point here, which Bruenig makes well, is that poverty is a function of policies that distribute income unevenly, not a spontaneous phenomenon. Wealth likewise, I’d add.

Policies built into the federal tax code are an obvious example — not only so-called tax expenditures in the individual income tax system, but the tax treatment of assets that are passed on to heirs.

State and local tax policies also enter into the picture, since, on average, they collect the highest percent of income from residents in the bottom fifth of the income scale and the lowest percent of all for the top 1%.

Less obvious, but surely important are school financing policies, which tend to provide significantly more resources for the schools wealthy kids can attend and shortchange the schools for the poorest, who arguably need more.

Insofar as a good education increases future earnings, the uneven distribution of tax dollars contributes to uneven income distribution in successive generations.

Diverse labor policies also affect earnings, of course. These have generally tended to depress wage growth for the vast majority of workers.  And the savings they enable businesses to achieve go to owners, who may be shareholders — and in many large corporations, to CEOs.

Housing, transportation and urban development policies have also played a part by concentrating poor people in pockets of poverty, with limited access to jobs and, as aforementioned, good schools.

I’m sure some of you can think of others.

In short (after what perhaps should have been shorter), poverty and income inequality don’t just happen. We’ve created them — or at the very least, made decisions that foster them.

By the same token, we could make decisions to reduce them. We’ve got the wealth and a wealth of ideas. Not, however, the political will that can come only from a broad consensus that creating the conditions for shared prosperity is a must-do.

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