Are economically disadvantaged families in the US likely to reverse their fortunes anytime soon? Not according to a new report by the Brookings Institution, which found that growing economic disparities between Americans are becoming increasingly permanent and irreversible. In other words, the study confirms that disadvantaged Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to move up the income ladder, while at the same time the position of the well-off is increasingly secure.
Brookings also found that between 1987 and 2009 the US tax system only “partially mitigated” the increase in income inequality and that it was not enough to “sufficiently alter its broadly increasing trend.” This result is not all that surprising given that the overall (combined state and federal) tax system is barely progressive, meaning that it can only have a small redistributive impact.
While many countries have taken dramatic steps to reduce income inequality, the US has allowed income inequality to grow so extreme that it now has the fourth highest level of income inequality in the developed world. Looking at the low end of the scale, the US Census Bureau found that over 46 million (PDF), or 1 in 6, Americans were below the poverty line in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available).
But don’t expect a revolution just yet. Most Americans are wholly unaware of how off track our economic system has gotten. For example, as the viral video “Wealth Inequality in America” explains, there is a huge disconnect between the actual distribution of wealth, the distribution of wealth as the public perceives it, and the distribution that the public believes is desirable.
According to the study (PDF) on which the video was based, Americans believe that the top 20 percent hold only 58 percent of the country’s wealth and that under an ideal system, the top 20 percent would own just 32 percent of the wealth. The reality, however, is that the top 20 percent actually own about 84 percent of the country’s wealth. Consider, for example, that the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune alone own as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined.
One of the best ways to combat rising economic inequality and increase economic mobility would be to enact progressive tax reforms and use the additional revenue raised to pay for critical investments in education, healthcare, and other areas that are needed to improve the economic mobility of lower and middle income Americans.