Why the Wealthiest Americans Are the Real 'Job-Killers'
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Discounting those in the top 20 percent of the pile – according to economists Emanuel Saez and Thomas Picketty it's actually the top 10 percent – Americans haven't seen their real incomes rise in the past 30 years.
Paul Buchheit, a professor with City Colleges of Chicago, crunched some numbers using IRS data and found that “if middle- and upper-middle-class families had maintained the same share of American productivity that they held in 1980, they would be making an average of $12,500 more per year.” In other words, because the share of income going to the top has increased so dramatically, ordinary people have $12,500 less in their wallets today. Studies have shown that when wealthy people grab more post-tax income they're more likely to bank it than to spend it, so much of that $12,500 also represents lost demand, and hence less jobs. Wealthy Americans' avarice is a job-killer.
American households compensated for their flat incomes first by sending millions of women into the workforce – the single-earner household is largely a relic of the past – and then by running up lots of debt. In the 1970s, Americans socked away between 8-12 percent in case hard times hit, but the national savings rate declined precipitously as the top earners started grabbing an outsized share of the nation's income.
As a result, we were among the least prepared citizens in the developed world to handle the crash – we didn't have a rainy-day fund put away.
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Then came the Great Recession. The federal Reserve did a study in 2009 in which it went back and surveyed the same households that had been examined in a 2007 snapshot of consumer finances to see how they were faring during the recession. The study found that between 2007 and 2009, median family net worth fell 23 percent, from $125,400 to only $96,000.
Like income, that continued a longer trend that began as those at the top of the pile began grabbing an ever-greater share of the nation's wealth. As Edward Wolff, an economist at NYU, noted, between 1983 and 2007, only those in the top 5 percent of the income distribution added to their households' net worth ( PDF). The rest of us tread water. Economists talk about a “wealth effect,” which simply means that when you have more wealth you tend to spend more freely. So, this concentration of wealth has also impacted demand.
None of this is particularly complex. In 1978, the top 1 percent of the ladder took in just under 9 percent of the nation's income, leaving a bit more than 91 percent for the rest of us. In 2007, the year before the crash, they took in 23.5 percent, leaving just 76.5 percent for the rest of the population to split up.
They banked most of that income, whereas we would have spent it. The fact that we're broke means that businesses are facing less demand for their goods and services than they otherwise would, and have less need to hire a bunch of employees. And that dynamic explains why it's the wealthiest Americans who are the real “job killers.”
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America . Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter .