Paul Greenberg

It's time I faced it. There some things that are just beyond my limited understanding. Like the latest hubbub over the concentration of wealth in American society. It happens every time the economy has a growth spurt. Naturally those at the top, often enough the entrepreneurs and investors who made the growth possible, reap the benefits. As in the 1920s, aka the Roaring Twenties. Or throughout the late 19th century as the country underwent perhaps its most intense period of economic development. The more wealth is created, the more envy.

The latest report from the U.S. Census Bureau confirms that there hasn't been so great a difference between the incomes of the richest and poorest Americans since, well, since the Census Bureau began measuring income inequality some 40 years ago. The highest-earning fifth of the American population now accounts for slightly over half (50.4 percent) of all U.S. household income, while the bottom fifth earned only 3.4 percent of total U.S. income in the year being measured (2005).

Yet real median annual household income - the midpoint of all American incomes - rose in 2005 by 1.1 percent to $46,326. The income of the top fifth of American earners rose by 2 percent, bringing their mean annual income up to $159,583. While the mean annual income for the bottom 20 percent of American earners rose 0.6 percent to $10,587. Result: the percentage of Americans living below the poverty level fell slightly - by 0.1 percent - to 12.6 percent of the population.

What these figures mean, if anything, or how fair or accurate they may be, or how much they reflect the effects of immigration or single-parent households or technological change Š all that can be left to economists and sociologists to argue over.

But this much is for sure: Separate but equally partisan politicians - and pundits - will make the most of the numbers they carefully select to buttress their own prejudices. The only thing this flood of data means to me is that the rich keep getting richer while the poor get a little richer, too. So this is news in America?

Others may get excited debating the significance of these latest stats, but my first reaction to them was to get another cup of coffee in a vain attempt to stay awake. I know there is something about economic inequality that is supposed to rile Americans, and indeed it does, almost instinctively. But I find it hard to summon up the expected ire. What does it matter to me if other folks' income is up so long as mine increases, too?


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.