Many Californians Struggle to Make Ends Meet Despite a Growing Economy

The economic recovery has continued to largely bypass low- and middle-income Californians, according to new Census data released last month. These latest Census figures show that California households in the bottom three-fifths of the income distribution saw their incomes essentially stagnate last year, even though the economy had been expanding for four straight years in California and nationally. The absence of any significant income gains is especially bad news given that these households suffered steep declines in their incomes in each of the prior five years.

California households in the bottom fifth, whose incomes fall below about $23,600, fared the worst in recent years. Their average inflation-adjusted income dropped by about 19 percent between 2007 and 2012, then flat-lined in 2013. This means that the lowest-income state residents have yet to gain back any of the nearly $3,000 they lost, on average, due to the weak job market during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession. While sobering, this trend is not entirely surprising given that hourly wages stagnated or declined for low-earning workers throughout the recovery.

High-income Californians also saw their incomes fall in recent years, but unlike state residents at the low end of the distribution, they regained in the last year much of what they had lost in prior years. The average inflation-adjusted income for households in the top fifth dropped by about 8 percent ($18,200) between 2007 and 2012, but then rose by about 4 percent ($9,500) in 2013. This means that in a single year the highest-income households — whose incomes averaged $224,000 — regained more than half of the income they lost, on average. The top 5 percent of California households — whose incomes averaged $399,000 — fared even better: Last year alone, they regained nearly two-thirds of the income they lost during the prior five years.

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The Uneven Economic Recovery Is Exacerbating Inequality in California

As the benefits of recent years’ economic growth largely accrue to Californians at the top of the distribution, income gaps are widening, exacerbating already high levels of inequality in the state. Last year, the average household in the top 5 percent had an income of $399,000 — 31 times the income of the average household in the bottom fifth ($12,700). Just six years earlier, at the height of the housing boom, the average household in the top 5 percent earned 26 times as much as the average household in the bottom fifth. This widening divide means that nearly one-quarter of total household income now goes to the wealthiest 5 percent of Californians, while less than 3 percent goes to the bottom fifth. And as striking as these figures are, they actually understate the extent of inequality in California. This is because they exclude one of the most significant sources of income for the wealthy — capital gains — and also because the Census does not report income changes for most millionaires.

Rising Inequality Isn’t Just Bad for Low- and Middle-Income Families, It’s Bad for the Economy

Should we be concerned that our nation’s economic rebound isn’t translating into income gains for a broad swath of the population? Certainly if you’re among the majority of families who have yet to see their incomes rise after years of decline, you have good reason to be concerned. As one recent New York Times analysis put it: “You can’t eat G.D.P. You can’t live in a rising stock market. You can’t give your kids a better life because your company’s C.E.O. was able to give himself a big raise.” In other words, without broadly shared income growth, an expanding economy can do little to help most families be economically secure or move up the economic ladder.

But there’s another reason we should be worried about uneven income gains. Recent reports, including one by Standard and Poor’s (S&P) Financial Services, have suggested that income inequality could be holding back our nation’s economic growth. One explanation could be that when many people’s incomes don’t keep up with their expenses, they often spend less. And when large numbers of people spend less, businesses produce less. The end result: an economy that grows more slowly than it otherwise would if fewer families were struggling to pay their bills.

Policymakers Can Reduce Inequality in California

But now for some good news: Inequality is not inevitable. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote, “widening and deepening inequality is not driven by immutable economic laws, but by laws we have written ourselves.” That means policymakers have the tools to reduce our growing income divide and mitigate the hardship it inflicts on low- and middle-income families. One way state policymakers could do this is by making investments to ensure that all children have sufficient opportunities to move up the economic ladder. Increasing access to high-quality education, from preschool through college, for example, would set low-income children on a path toward greater economic security in the future. State policymakers could also take steps to make California’s income tax system more progressive. Creating a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), for instance, would not only help workers with low to moderate earnings better support their families, but it also would reduce after-tax income gaps. To learn more about how California could reduce inequality by establishing a state EITC, watch for our forthcoming publication on the topic.

— Alissa Anderson