Just in time for the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the U.S. Census Bureau has published what we might call a 2013 update of America’s own Harvest of Shame: a comprehensive annual report on the state of income, poverty and health insurance in the United States.
To be fair, it’s not all bad news. For example, the report shows that 2012 was the first year since 2007, before the economy collapsed, that America’s median household income didn’t decline. It was statistically the same in 2012 as it was in 2011, roughly $51,000. That was also the first year since 2007 that there was no statistically significant increase in the number of people in poverty (46 million) or their percentage of the population (15%). All three numbers are still worse than they were in 2007, but at least they’ve stopped deteriorating. That’s the good news.
Pretty much all the rest of it is bad news, some of it shockingly so. Between 2000 and 2012 the median income for non-elderly households declined a whopping 11.6%, or $7,490 after correcting for inflation. Among African-American households the decline was 14.8%. A full 27% of blacks live in poverty, nearly 11 million people in all. Close to half (44%) of all Americans in poverty are living in what’s called “deep poverty,” with an income that’s less than half the poverty line. And the number of people under 65 receiving health insurance on the job dropped by 13.7 million or 10.8% in those 12 years (almost all before Obamacare kicked in).
The only income group reported by the Census Bureau to have gained income since 2009 is the top 5%, which saw a median gain of 0.6%, or $1,846. Everybody else lost.
Some of the information in the report is quite surprising. Remember President Reagan’s quip in 1987, “In the 60s we waged a war on poverty and poverty won”? It turns out he was dead wrong. The poverty rate plummeted during the 1960s, from about 22% of the population in 1959 to about 11% in 1973. It stayed roughly level until about 1978 and then started climbing, reaching 15% in 1982, the second year of Reagan’s presidency. (Hence the increase in poverty that he correctly perceived in 1987 was actually his handiwork.) It stayed up around 15% until 1993, the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when it began dropping again, reaching 11.3% in 2000, Clinton’s last year. The next year, the first of the Bush administration it began climbing steadily, reaching 15% in 2011. In fact, contrary to what you might think, there was no dramatic jump in poverty after 2007. It’s just been a steady climb since 2000.
Likewise, median income declined between 2000 and 2007, though only a bit, then proceeded to plummet. In other words, some of our troubles began when the economy collapsed, but important parts of the disaster began directly after the Supreme Court’s historic December 2000 ruling in Bush v. Gore. It takes some digging to find out, though. The Census report doesn’t highlight this at all. It’s all built around the post-2007 collapse.
A separate income study, this one based on Internal Revenue Service figures, was released September 3 by economist Emmanuel Saez at the University of California-Berkeley. It shows that average family incomes (as opposed to median) grew by 6% between 2009 and 2012. But nearly all the gain went to families in the top 1% of the population, whose income grew 31.4%. The other 99% saw an average gain of 0.4%. (And based on the above Census Bureau numbers, even that paltry increase seems to have gone mostly to the top 5%.) The Los Angeles Times published a summary of the Berkeley study on September 11.
The Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed Washington think tank, pulled out some of the most interesting numbers from the Census Bureau’s report:
Some interesting new ideas today about inequality in America.
First, Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson offers an important insight into the different kinds of inequality that exist and the differing responses. Over the past half-century, he writes, public pressure for black, women’s and gay rights has brought down barriers confronting those excluded because of their racial and sexual identities.
Changes in the law have followed the same pattern: First, a handful of generally radical activists brought attention to the existence of a legal double standard; then, a mass movement grew in support of eliminating discriminatory laws and practices; only after this did government respond with legal remedies.
It hasn’t been even. The Supreme Court’s assault on the Voting Rights Act, state attacks on abortion and other backlash measures have set back fights for equality. Still, the general direction of society has been toward equality.
But, Meyerson writes, the opposite has been true for economic equality. After nearly a half-century of government activism to reduce inequality, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, the last 30 years have seen a steady, radical rise in inequality, due in large measure to government policies like deregulating the financial industry and undercutting workers’ bargaining power. The trend not only reverses the legacies of Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but also “makes a mockery of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of equality, which went beyond mere equality of creation” and looked to a “nation of yeoman farmers” to prevent “inequalities of wealth and power.”
He might also have mentioned Abraham Lincoln, whose freeing of the slaves served, as Andrew Zimmerman writes in today’s New York Times, as an inspiration to European radicals and helped fuel the socialist and workers’ rights movements that emerged in the decades after Lincoln.
More on economic inequality: two fascinating new studies from the Economic Policy Institute, not easy reading but well worth the slog:
Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik has an essential piece today debunking what he calls “The Myth of the Social Security system’s financial shortfall.” It’s based on the newly-released 2010 report of the Social Security Trustees.
In fact, he argues, Social Security is doing fine, sort of. If there’s a problem, it’s the fact that it has been lending money to the general fund of the federal government for years to cover expenses that used to be covered by income taxes. The payroll tax has been steadily raised to keep Social Security solvent. The income taxes of the wealthiest Americans have been repeatedly, drastically lowered under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (Hiltzik leaves out Reagan, as I’ll show), leaving big holes in the general fund, which covers defense, national parks, highways, welfare and all the rest. The impoverished general fund has been borrowing from the flush Social Security trust fund to help cover the deficits.
Here’s the catch: The payroll tax is a regressive tax: the poorest Americans pay the same 7.65% as the richest Americans, and the rich don’t even pay a penny on earnings above $107,000 per year. Lowering income taxes on the rich, and then covering the shortfall by borrowing from a pot that’s mainly funded by the common folk (and mainly relied on by them) amounts to a massive redistribution of income from the poor to the rich. And that’s why the Social Security trust fund looks insolvent: It has been raided to cover money that used to be in the federal budget but is now in the pockets of the rich.
I know, I know: Letting the affluent keep their money (they’re basically the only ones who get to do that under these tax cuts) encourages investment and creates jobs. If anybody here still believes that, I’ve got a lovely oil well to sell you, conveniently located just south of historic New Orleans.
In recent years, during which conservatives have intensified their efforts to destroy one of the few U.S. government programs that actually works as intended, the report’s publication has become an occasion for hand-wringing and crocodile tears over the (supposedly) parlous state of the system’s finances.
This year’s report, which came out Thursday, is no exception. Within minutes of its release, some analysts were claiming that it projected a “shortfall” for Social Security this year of $41 billion.
Republican Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina has stirred up a bit of a storm lately with his proposal that Ulysses S. Grant’s face be removed from the $50 bill and replaced with Ronald Reagan’s.
Leave aside the obvious implications of a Southern Republican maneuvering to demote the president best remembered for defeating the Confederacy. Overlook that fact that the new face on the $50 would be the president who restored the pride and honor of the Confederate flag. Stipulate that it’s unheard of for a president’s face to appear on currency less than half a century after he left office—indeed, less than a decade after his death.
The more charged question is who was the better president. Many of us tend to think of Grant, if at all, as a drunk and a failure whose one moment of glory was the Civil War. If you’ve dug a little deeper, you may be aware of him as the president who haplessly looked on while America entered the Gilded Age and fell into the clutches of greedy capitalists, railroad trusts and robber barons. (Come to think of it, you would expect today’s Republicans to celebrate him for that if nothing else.)
Jews have a special complaint. As alert readers recall, Grant was responsible for perhaps the most blatantly antisemitic federal government action in the history of the Republic. On December 17, 1862, at the height of the war, he issued the infamous General Order No. 11, instructing that “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department,” be expelled within 24 hours from the Department of Tennessee (a military zone including Tennessee and Kentucky). Jews throughout the country were thunderstruck. At least one Jewish officer under Grant’s command resigned in protest.
It took Representative McHenry to reopen the public debate on Grant, which has been simmering in the Academy for decades. It turns out that Grant has more defenders than detractors these days. Even the Jewish case against him — perhaps especially the Jewish case — is beginning to look a bit thin.
The eminent and staunchly progressive Princeton history Sean Wilentz laid out the basic argument for Grant as a great and underappreciated president in an Op-Ed essay in the New York Times this week. Another interesting piece on Grant’s merits is this blog post by Matt Yglesias of Think Progress. The reader responses are as interesting as Yglesias’s post itself.
What’s still largely unknown is Grant’s deep connections to the Jewish community of his day. Far from being an antisemite in the White House, he was probably the most actively friendly president the American Jewish community had had up to that time.
Here are the facts: