Sorry, But "Income Inequality" Is About To Increase

Yesterday, New Year's Day, new Mayor Bill de Blasio was sworn in on the steps of City Hall.  He gave an inaugural address reiterating all his major campaign themes.  Chief among these was what he calls the "crisis of inequality."

New York has faced fiscal collapse, a crime epidemic, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. But now, in our time, we face a different crisis – an inequality crisis. . . .  It’s a quiet crisis, but one no less pernicious than those that have come before.  Its urgency is read on the faces of our neighbors and their children, as families struggle to make it against increasingly long odds. To tackle a challenge this daunting, we need a dramatic new approach. . . .   A city that fights injustice and inequality — not just because it honors our values, but because it strengthens our people.

There were no specifics in the speech as to what de Blasio intends to do about the crisis, or why he thinks he can solve it, if indeed it is a problem.

I have a prediction for de Blasio that he might not like:  income inequality, as measured by government statistics,  is going to increase over the next four years, both in New York and in the United States as a whole.  That will occur literally no matter what de Blasio does, no matter how much in the way of taxpayer resources he devotes to the issue.  The reason is that government policies beyond his control, largely at the federal level, have a powerful effect of increasing measured income inequality.  The big three policies driving measured income inequality are food stamps, Medicaid, and Obamacare.  The third has just begun to work its destruction.

President Obama is also all over the income inequality issue.  He gave a big speech on the issue in Kansas on December 4 (where he called income inequality "the defining challenge of our time"), and the smart money is betting that this will also be the big theme of his upcoming State of the Union address.  And of course government benefits for low income people have exploded during Obama's five years in office.  So has measured income inequality increased or decreased on Obama's watch?  The answer is that it has increased.  Not only has it increased, but it has increased faster than it increased during the eight years of GW Bush.  Among many articles discussing this seeming anomaly, here is one from the Huffington Post of September 1, 2013.  An excerpt:

The difference between America’s median and average wages grew at a rate of 0.28 percent under President Bush, while it’s grown at a rate of 1.14 percent -- or about four times that -- under Obama, according to The New York Times. The median wage is the midpoint of all workers’ wages, so it only ticks up when everyone is earning more. While a small group of people earning higher pay can push the average wage up.  So, as the difference between the two rises, it means that those at the bottom of the income scale are making fewer gains compared to those at the top.  This data point is one of many that illustrates that in Obama’s America the rich are gaining while the rest of us are struggling to get by.

How could this possibly be?  The answer is that increases in government benefit programs are actually the main cause of the increase in measured income inequality.  This happens because the government benefit programs have the effect of suppressing the measured income of the lowest tiers of the income distribution.

To understand why, you need to know two things: (1) government in-kind benefit programs do not count at all in the measurement of "income" that then goes into the measurement of "income inequality," and (2) at the bottom tiers of the income distribution, government benefit programs seriously discourage the formation of families with a breadwinner.  And thus we have large numbers of single-parent households, living largely or entirely off government benefits, all of which count as zero income.  No amount of new jobs in the economy, no amount of increases in minimum or average wages, no amount of union organizing, and for that matter no amount of increases in the in-kind government benefits, is going to provide these families with measured income. 

The increase in measured income inequality on Obama's watch corresponds to the explosions in food stamp and Medicaid enrollment during this period.  This is not a coincidence.  Put yourself in the position of a woman who has had a couple of children at a young age without marrying and has been able to make a go of it with a suite of government benefits, including housing, food stamps, and free medical care.  All of those things count at zero in the income statistics.  Now a hard-working young man comes along, interested in being with you, and he has a lower- to middle-class income, say $30,000 to $40,000 per year.  You would be out of your mind to marry this man.  Instantly you are disqualified from all the benefits (or in the case of the housing, your rent shoots up).  And why, when you can hang out with the guy four or five or six days a week, you keep the apartment and the food stamps and the Medicaid and he keeps the money (and maybe gives you some of it on the side)?  Ninety-nine percent of people facing this situation are going to make the same choice.  As more people get the benefits (the number on food stamps has increased by about 20 million since Obama took office), more will make the decision to perpetuate an income-free family unit to keep the benefits flowing. 

Meanwhile, at the higher reaches of the income distribution, income continues a slow but steady rise.  The effect of that, combined with government-caused stagnation at near zero levels at the bottom, is steady increases in measured income inequality.  

Suppose now that the government substantially increases all the benefits that it provides to the poor.  This has absolutely no effect on measured income inequality, since none of the benefits count in the statistics.

And into this mix, now throw Obamacare.  Beginning basically today,  Obamacare offers very substantial subsidies on medical care premiums to households depending on where their income stands relative to "federal poverty level" (FPL).  Subsidies continue all the way up to 400% of FPL, which for a family of four now approaches $100,000.   Here is a basic summary of the workings from Kaiser Health News.   To put it in simple terms, lots and lots more people are going to find it to their major economic advantage to not be married, which will in turn mean that there will be lots and lots more low and zero income households that previously would have been combined with other households to make middle income families.

So starting now, a young lady just getting started with a low income from freelancing and a little waitressing goes to to look for a plan, and they ask her her household income.  Does she include the live-in boyfriend's income or not?  That could easily be a $5000 or $10,000 per year issue.  I'm guessing that maybe 97.23% opt for not including him.  OK, if she's really conscientious about honesty maybe he has to go and stay with his parents one or two nights a week.

There is no question but that Obamacare is going to have a large effect on increasing measured income inequality.  Sorry, Bill, but there is nothing you can do about this.  The good news is that little or none of it is real; it's just an artifact of the statistics.  But of course, de Blasio doesn't know that, or at least he hasn't shown any awareness of these issues in anything he has said to date.