The Income Gap and the Economy

The income gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening in the U.S.1 Why does that matter? Because there are studies that indicate a wide swathe of income differentiation is not good for economic growth.

In the years following the Great Recession, we often heard how slowly the economy was recovering. That was true for most Americans, but not for the wealthiest 10 percent. A recent analysis of wealth distribution finds that the richest Americans saw their net worth rise 27 percent between 2007 and 2016. However, the rest of the population saw a decline in net worth, from an average of 5 percent for those in the 80 to 89.9 income percentile to 29 percent for those in the lowest fifth of wealth.2

Perhaps one way to join the group of people who can thrive during economic declines is to be financially prepared ahead of time. That may not be easy to do if your prospects for a good education and a good job are poor. But even for those who don’t come from affluent households, there are ways to help put yourself on the path toward long-term wealth. Start investing early — preferably in an employer-sponsored retirement plan that offers a contribution match. Establish an emergency fund so that an unexpected expense does not drain your investments and savings, taking away the opportunity for compounded interest earnings and potentially adding an extra tax liability. Avoid credit card debt like the plague.

For people who barely earn enough to live on, this can take great sacrifice. Even for people who have ample disposable income, it’s important to learn discipline in order to help maintain one’s financial situation in times of economic decline. If you would like help to establish savings and investment strategies, as well as asset protection strategies using insurance products, please give us a call.

One way to look at the issue of income differentiation is to evaluate where it currently exists, including, for example, between men and women. A recent survey found that 64 percent of women say their top financial priority is meeting daily living costs, compared to 60 percent of men who say that saving for retirement is their top financial priority.3 It seems unlikely that women are less concerned with how to provide for themselves in retirement. Instead, it would appear that many women, whose median annual earnings are $10,086 less than men’s, have more immediate concerns.4

Income disparity during earning years can create a big problem during retirement years. Retirees who were born during the Great Depression and World War II need to supplement only 27 percent of their retirement income with their own savings. However, that situation is expected to change dramatically by the time Generation X (those age 37 to 53) retires. Many will be without the “safety net” of employer pension plans, and they are expected to need to provide about 42 percent of their retirement income from their own savings.5 That means they must save a larger percentage of their pre-retirement income, which is easier to do if you’re financially stable, but it can be difficult when you live paycheck to paycheck.

There’s no question that the income gap has grown since the days when blue-collar workers could earn a good living at U.S. manufacturing jobs. In fact, from the end of World War II through the early 1970s, the U.S. experienced substantial economic growth and prosperity across all income levels. However, economic growth slowed after that, and the income gap widened, with lower- and middle-income families having sharply slower wage growth but top earners continuing to have strong growth.6

Some economists are coming to the conclusion that income inequality hurts growth. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund recently wrote, “If the income share of the top 20 percent (the rich) increases, then GDP growth actually declines over a medium term.” Possible solutions, however, such as welfare programs, higher taxes on the rich and redistribution of wealth, are controversial. Others believe the studies failed to prove the relationship between inequality and lower growth.7

There is a bright spot for lower- and middle-class workers: U.S. manufacturing jobs have increased by almost a million since 2010, although there still are 6 million fewer such jobs than in 1980. However, factories are increasing automation — which may threaten the jobs of humans.8

And although the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” gives most Americans a tax decrease, it’s still the wealthy who may benefit the most. A household making $40,000 a year will receive an average $330 tax cut in 2019, while Americans making more than $3.6 million a year will average an $85,640 tax reduction.9

1 Ryan Vlastelica. MarketWatch. April 6, 2018. “Why income inequality is holding back economic growth, in one chart.” Accessed April 16, 2018.
2 Ibid.
3 Lee Barney. PlanSponsor. March 28, 2018. “Retirement Saving More of a Priority for Men than Women.” Accessed April 16, 2018.
4 Sonam Sheth, Shayanne Gal and Skye Gould. Business Insider. April 10, 2018. “6 charts show how much more men make than women.” Accessed April 18, 2018.
5 Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. March 29, 2018. “Future Retirees Financially Fragile.” Accessed April 16, 2018.
6 Chad Stone, Danilo Trisi, Arloc Sherman and Roderick Taylor. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Feb. 16, 2018. “A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality.” Accessed April 16, 2018.
7 Andreas Becker. Deutsche Welle. April 16, 2018. “Is inequality good or bad for the economy?” Accessed April 18, 2018.
8 April Glaser. Recode. May 26, 2017. “Why manufacturing jobs are coming back to the U.S. — even as companies buy more robots.” Accessed April 18, 2018.
9 Reuben Fischer-Baum, Kim Soffen and Heather Long. The Washington Post. Jan. 30, 2018. “Republicans say it’s a tax cut for the middle class. The biggest winners are the rich.” Accessed April 18, 2018.