Some Inconvenient Facts about Income Inequality

Follow these three links at and you’ll find Table P-28, Educational Attainment—Workers 18 Years Old and Over by Mean Earnings, Age and Sex. (Similar tables are available, but the numbers reported in P-28 are based on a consistent definition of educational attainment.) Drawing on Table P-28, I constructed the following statistics for 1992 and 2012, which are years with similar rates of growth in GDP per capita (2.19 percent and 2.05 percent, respectively):

Employment earnings and 20-year changes in earnings

Men and women are separated because it’s a fact of life that — on average — they don’t earn the same incomes. This isn’t a matter of discrimination, but of differences in education (discipline as well as level of attainment), occupation, experience, and hours worked. (See, for example, “No, Women Don’t Make Less Money Than Men,” The Daily Beast, February 2, 2014.)

Tables 1, 2, 4, and 5 show something that should surprise no one: income rises with age (a proxy for experience) and level of education. This is a key fact that is never mentioned in the usual blather about income inequality. (There is, of course, a drop in real earnings among persons 65 and older, which reflects the fact that most persons in that age bracket have retired or shifted to part-time work.)

Tables 3 and 6 are especially interesting for what they reveal about changes in real income between 1992 and 2012 for cohorts at various levels of educational attainment. For example, the real earnings of men with a 9th grade education who were 18-24 years old in 1992 had risen by 94 percent 20 years later, when they were in the 35-44 age bracket.

Among the male cohorts under the age of 65 in 2012, only one (of  24) experienced a decline in real earnings. Male cohorts in the 35-54 age range show impressive rises in real income between 1992 and 2012. Among women, no cohort below age 65 experienced a drop in real income between 1992 and 2012; and most experienced a healthy increase.

Of course, some persons who worked full-time in 2012 earned less in that year than they did as full-time workers in 1992. But it’s evident that those 20 years were good for almost everyone. Otherwise, the numbers wouldn’t look as good as they do. In addition to the evidence of tables 3 and 6, consider this:  average real earnings rose by 24 percent between 1992 and 2012. (So much for wage stagnation.)

Tables 3 and 6 indicate that persons high levels of educational attainment have done better than persons at the low end of the educational ladder. That’s simply a fact of economic life, not the result of a conspiracy. It reflects the ever-increasing demand for highly technical goods and services — from nanosurgery to Google glass. In 2012, there were 1.7 million, 8.3 million, and 17.1 million persons in the top 1-, 5-, and 10-percent income brackets. Such large numbers are hardly the stuff of conspiracies.

What about the distribution of incomes? (Note to the uninitiated: Incomes aren’t “distributed,” they’re earned. “Distribution,” in this context, is shorthand for frequency distribution, a statistical term. Unfortunately, too many people interpret “distribution” as a reference to a mysterious and conspiratorial doling out of a big pie in the sky.) Taking into account the number of persons represented in each age-education group, I constructed these distributions for 1992 and 2012:

Mean income by percentile, 2012 vs 1992

The two curves have almost the same Gini coefficient: 0.239 for 1992, 0.242 for 2012. That is to say, the distribution of average incomes (taking men and women together) wasn’t any less equal in 2012 than it was in 1992.

The details for 2012 are in the next table. (Professional degrees include MD, JD, DDS, DVM, and similarly occupation-specific advanced degrees; doctorates include PhD and EdD.) The mean is $46,615; the median, $42,250.

Mean income by percentile, sex, education, age - 2012

And don’t forget, these numbers include part-timers as well as full-timers; college students as well as high-school dropouts; and a large contingent of under-educated (and probably not very bright) oldsters. These numbers don’t include the many sources of income and income-in-kind represented in the “social safety net”: unemployment compensation, disability benefits, survivors’ benefits, food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and on and on.

Note to Obama and friends: Go peddle your phony stories about income inequality where they’ll be appreciated — Tsarist Russia, for example.

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Related posts:
Why We Deserve What We Earn
Who Decides Who’s Deserving?
The Main Causes of Prosperity
Why Class Warfare Is Bad for Everyone
Fighting Myths with Facts
Debunking More Myths of Income Inequality
Ten Commandments of Economics
More Commandments of Economics
On Income Inequality
The Causes of Economic Growth
The Last(?) Word about Income Inequality
Status, Spite, Envy, and Income Redistribution
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Price of Government
Does the Minimum Wage Increase Unemployment?
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
In Defense of the 1%
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
How High Should Taxes Be?
The 80-20 Rule, Illustrated
Economics: A Survey (also here)
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.