What does Michael Jordan tell us about income inequality in the United States? The U.S. has greater income inequality than nearly all other developed nations, and the former basketball star earned far more in most years than the typical American earns in a lifetime. So is our system unfair and stacked against the middle class? First, some historical perspective.
“From the time of Pericles until the end of the 18th century in London—2,300 years,” notes Harvard Prof. Lawrence Summers, “standards of living on Earth increased perhaps 100%.” In the U.S. since 1790, by contrast, real per capita gross domestic product has increased nearly 4,000%. Quality of life, in other words, increased 40 times more in 220 years of American history than it had globally over two millennia. In 2012, a typical American in the bottom fifth of the income distribution has a far higher quality of life—and life expectancy—than the average member of the top 1% in 1790.
Critics today often point to the 1950s as the last years before American society became so divided between haves and have-nots. At the end of that decade, America’s “Gini coefficient”—the most common measure of income inequality, running from 0 (least unequal) to 1 (most unequal)—was 0.37. Today it is 0.45.
But in 1959, more than 20% of families fell below the poverty line. In 2010 that figure was just over 13%. Real per capita GDP today is 270% higher than it was in 1959. A family in the bottom fifth of the income distribution today makes the same amount in real terms as a family earning the median income in 1950. So inequality might have increased, but so too—dramatically—has quality of life.
Even over the last two decades, while real income has essentially stagnated for the bottom fifth of earners, basic conveniences have become far more affordable. In 1992, only 20% of American families below the poverty line had a dishwasher—50% had air conditioning and 60% owned a microwave. When the Census Bureau last surveyed these figures in 2005, those figures were 37%, 79% and 91%, respectively. Critics who minimize the importance of these conveniences likely have never had to do without them.