If you've been listening to Mike Huckabee or John Edwards on the Presidential trail, you may have heard that the U.S. is becoming a nation of rising inequality and shrinking opportunity. We'd refer those campaigns to a new study of income mobility by the Treasury Department that exposes those claims as so much populist hokum.This study shows that America still is the "Land of Opportunity". The Treasury reached this conclusion by analyzing information from IRS Tax returns.
The Treasury study examined a huge sample of 96,700 income tax returns from 1996 and 2005 for Americans over the age of 25. The study tracks what happened to these tax filers over this 10-year period. One of the notable, and reassuring, findings is that nearly 58% of filers who were in the poorest income group in 1996 had moved into a higher income category by 2005. Nearly 25% jumped into the middle or upper-middle income groups, and 5.3% made it all the way to the highest quintile.For any society to be able to claim upward mobility, there must also be downward mobility.
Only one income group experienced an absolute decline in real income--the richest 1% in 1996. Those households lost 25.8% of their income. Moreover, more than half (57.4%) of the richest 1% in 1996 had dropped to a lower income group by 2005. Some of these people might have been "rich" merely for one year, or perhaps for several, as they hit their peak earning years or had some capital gains windfall. Others may simply have not been able to keep up with new entrepreneurs and wealth creators.Logically there must be "room" to move upward, before opportunity can be realized. This "room" can only be created in a society where things are dynamic not static. Dynamic movement allows for both up and down movement.
The key point is that the study shows that income mobility in the U.S. works down as well as up--another sign that opportunity and merit continue to drive American success, not accidents of birth. The "rich" are not the same people over time.This is only true of a society where opportunity exists. This Treasury Department study also shows that the ability for the lower economic money earners to move upward is approximately the same as it was in the previous decade. In fact the percentages have remained stable since the 1960's.
All of this certainly helps to illuminate the current election-year debate about income "inequality" in the U.S. The political left and its media echoes are promoting the inequality story as a way to justify a huge tax increase. But inequality is only a problem if it reflects stagnant opportunity and a society stratified by more or less permanent income differences. That kind of society can breed class resentments and unrest. America isn't remotely such a society, thanks in large part to the incentives that exist for risk-taking and wealth creation.The final paragraph of this Editorial piece illustrates the irony of claiming "Lack of Opportunity" as justification for raising taxes.
The great irony is that, in the name of reducing inequality, some of our politicians want to raise taxes and other government obstacles to the kind of risk-taking and hard work that allow Americans to climb the income ladder so rapidly. As the Treasury data show, we shouldn't worry about inequality. We should worry about the people who use inequality as a political club to promote policies that reduce opportunity.