A RECENT Census Bureau study of incomes in the United States not only reveals some interesting facts about the economic well-being of Americans, it reveals even more about the mindset of our times, especially among the intelligentsia.
Amid pages and pages of tightly packed statistics about what percentage of households get what percentage of income, there is one brief paragraph saying that the average family household now earns about $50,000 a year. If you dig through enough tables, you will eventually discover that married-couple families average more than $56,000 a year and, when the wife works, over $66,000.
These incomes are higher than what we are used to seeing because the usual household income statistics include many households with only one person, or households where the only adult is a single mother, perhaps working and perhaps on welfare. Not surprisingly, these kinds of households bring in much less money than households where there is a married couple. In other words, working makes a difference. How startling is that? Or how unfair?
Yet there is such a heavy vested interest in the notion that American society is grossly unfair that statistics concentrate overwhelmingly on what percentage of households get what percentage of the total income -- with very little attention to the per capita income that shows how the average American's standard of living is rising. For example, this Census publication, with dozens of pages lavished on income disparities, mentions in one brief sentence that the real per capita income of whites rose 13 percent from 1989 to 1999, while the real per capita income of blacks rose 24 percent during that same period.
Wait a minute! What about the failure of American family income to rise? What about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer that we hear so much about in the media and in academia? What about the "racist" society that is holding blacks back or at least leaving them behind?
The growing inequality in incomes over time is no more mysterious or sinister than the fact that incomes are rising. As Alan Reynolds of the Hudson Institute has pointed out, rising wages and salaries mean a growing inequality between those who work and those who do not work. High-income families have more people working and they work more hours per year.
The big problem with household statistics is that households have been getting smaller for years and black households are smaller than white households. Indeed, low-income households in general are smaller than high-income households.
The illusion of income stagnation comes from the fact that two people in a household today earn not much more than three people earned a generation ago. That is still a hefty 50 percent rise in real per capita income -- which may be why more people can now afford to go live in their own households.
Playing games with household income statistics enables the political left to keep hyping poverty, even as genuine poverty is declining to a point that would endanger the political agenda of the left, if the public understood.
When all else fails, liberals and leftists can fall back on "racism" as the all-purpose explanation for all black-white differences in income, education and other social factors. Even here, however, their task is no longer as easy as it once was. Rising rates of intermarriage and the widespread popularity of black and other minority public figures like Oprah, Colin Powell and Tiger Woods makes it hard to keep pretending that things are still the way they were back in the days of the Selma marches and the Birmingham bombings.
It is even tougher when you take a hard, close look at the statistics. QueryLogic Corporation in California has organized vast amounts of data from the 1990 Census on CD-ROMs, and from it you can tabulate the incomes of people with a wide variety of ancestries. It turns out that people from Barbados living in the United States -- almost all being black -- have higher incomes than white Americans.
More than one-fifth of all Asian American families have incomes of $100,000 or more. What does that do to the all-purpose explanation of racism? What does it do to the claim that only whites have a chance in the American economy?
No wonder the Census, the media and academics tiptoe around certain statistics. A whole political vision could collapse if the facts become widely