The False Claim That Inequality Rose During the Great Recession

Stephen Rose February 17, 2015
February 17, 2015
Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, income inequality has fallen, not increased, since the Great Recession.

Income inequality has become a major topic of public concern lately, partly as a result of the release last year of Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and his writings with his colleague Berkeley economics Professor Emanuel Saez. In 2013, Saez claimed that 95 percent of growth during the recovery from the Great Recession went to the top one percent. Many commentators jumped on these results as a foreboding sign of what was to come in the future and called for a focus on redistribution, rather than growth policies. After all, if the rich are getting all the gains, why focus on overall economic growth?

However, the claim that income inequality grew following the Great Recession is nothing more than a statistical gimmick. In fact, Piketty’s own research shows that the “1 percenters” experienced the largest loss of income from 2007 to 2012.  A Congressional Budget Office report found that while the richest one percent of households saw their after-tax incomes decline by 27 percent from 2007 to 2011, the bottom 95 percent saw only one to two percent loss.

This report analyzes the data to provide a clearer picture on income inequality during the last eight years and argues, given these findings, that it would be a mistake to give up on pro-growth policies in favor of a predominant focus on redistribution.