In a previous column, I noted the sudden new interest by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in the issue of income inequality. Since then, the Christian Science Monitor and Business Week have jumped on the bandwagon. The latest entry in the Times series made the predictable point that the Bush tax cuts are exacerbating the maldistribution of income.
As I said earlier, I don't believe that this heavy coverage of an issue that is not remotely time-sensitive is coincidental. One clue to what is going on comes from something called the University of Texas Inequality Project, which recently produced a paper showing that Democratic presidential candidates did better in states with high income inequality.
It doesn't come as much of a surprise that inequality is an issue that plays for Democrats. Bashing the rich is in their blood, and no Democrat is happier than when he is engaging in class warfare. Consequently, it is in the Democrats' interest to play up inequality and any sign that the rich are getting richer, especially if they can show that it is coming at the expense of the poor and middle class.
There is an unlimited supply of liberal economists at the University of Texas, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and elsewhere who are eager to manipulate the data to "prove" that inequality is getting worse. The problem is that average people don't believe it. What really matters, both economically and politically, is what they see with their own eyes in their own lives. On this basis, the evidence of rising inequality is very weak indeed.
The American Enterprise Institute compiled a useful compendium of data on this subject a few years ago. According to this study, in 1964 people were first asked what economic class they had grown up in and what class they belonged to today. Pollsters asked this question again in 1978, 1984 and 1996. In every case, there was solid evidence that people were living in a higher economic class than the one in which they were raised.
Interestingly, the strongest evidence is found in the most recent poll, taken in March by, ironically, The New York Times. According to this study, 18 percent of people reported living in the lower class as children. But today, only 7 percent say they belong to that class. Another 44 percent say they had a working-class childhood. However, only 35 percent say they are part of the working class today. In short, the percentage of the population living in the bottom two income classes fell from 62 percent to 42 percent -- an impressive improvement, greater than in any other survey.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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