Forgetting the Poor While Arguing About the Rich

The Ugliest Chart in US Economic History

All the handwringing over the fiscal cliff has centered on the “job creators” and the “middle class,” but the last time I checked, there was a non-trivial segment of the US population that falls into neither of these categories: the poor.

From the US Census Bureau, we see that the median family income in 2011 [Excel spreadsheet] was $60,974. Half the families earned more than that; half earned less. But more interesting than that midpoint is the spread of incomes. Consider these pairs of data points:

  • # families with income above $200,000: 4,425,000; # families with income below $10,000: 4,276,000
  • # families with income above $125,000: 13,907,000; # families with income below $25,000: 14,070,000

That’s a lot of households — households, not people — with very low and extremely low income. But God forbid that Congress or the White House mention these folks when it comes to federal budget decisions. It’s clearly much more important to worry about how the folks with more than $125,000 or $200,000 (or $400,000 or $1,000,000) are affected by the decisions being made in DC than it is the people with incomes below $25,000 or $10,000.

And it gets worse when you put age into the mix:

  • # families with income above $200,000 and age of householder 65 or higher: 461,000; # families with income below $25,000 and age of householder 65 or higher: 2,468,000

The social security program put a serious dent in poverty among the elderly, yet even so, there are roughly six times more households with less than$25,000 than there are with incomes over $200,000. Even more telling is that other line: almost 8 times more households who “did not work” had incomes under $25,000 than had incomes over $200,000 — and there’s a big, big difference between these two groups.

And it gets worse when you look at the percentages of households with working adults:

  • % of families with income above $200,000 who did not work: 11%; % of families with income above $200,000 who worked part time: 9% [total: 20%]
  • % of families with income below $25,000 who did not work: 57%; % of families with income below $25,000 who worked part time: 16% [total: 73%]
  • # families with income above $200,000 who did not work: 502,000; # families with income below $25,000 who did not work: 7,959,000

Note, please, that for the former group, working (either part time or at all) is a question of personal preference; for the latter group, it is a matter of survival. More households have an income of more than $250,000 than have an income less than $5,000 (3.1% vs 3.0%).

Think about that for a moment.

Income of $250,000 or more, and did not work? That’s a lot of capital gains and dividends and other “unearned income.” It is certainly more that the folks with income less than $25,000 receive. Given the number of people who have been out of work for more than 6 months, it’s damned ugly.

And yet, the political rhetoric on the Democratic side of things centers on protecting the middle class, while the Republicans speak of protecting the rich. Is $250,000 rich? $400,000? $1,000,000? However you define rich, the poor apparently matter not, to either party.

Maybe this is why Jesus said “you will always have the poor with you.” It’s clear that the Powers That Be — republicans, democrats, and the media — don’t particularly give a damn.


chart h/t to Bill McBride (aka Calculated Risk) and used with permission. Bill’s charts are the best.

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