Monday, January 07, 2008

Will-fully Misleading?

UPDATE 4/6/10: David Brooks joins Will in misrepresenting Stephen J. Rose's household income figures as individual income

George Will, slamming the populism of Edwards and Huckabee, uses some pretty dicey-looking numbers to paint a picture of a wealthy electorate:

Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 — because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled, from 12 to 24, while the percentage earning less than $30,000 is unchanged. "So," Rose says, "the entire 'decline' of the middle class came from people moving up the income ladder." Even as housing values declined in 2007, the net worth of households increased.
According to U.S. Census figures, in 2006, 19% of U.S. households earned over $100,000. Households in the top two income quintiles , those with an annual household income exceeding $60,000, had a median of two income earners while those in the lower quintiles (2nd and middle quintile) had median of only one earner. These numbers suggest that a small percentage of "Americans" earn over $100,000. The median household income is $48,201.00 (a handy summary is at Wikipedia*).

This is not to say that Edwards doesn't overstate the economic distress of Americans generally. It's fine to emphasize the continued prevalence of poverty in the U.S., which Edwards rightly calls shameful. It's also fair to stress that middle class income has stagnated, that income inequality is rising, and that there's been a massive risk transfer to households over the past 2-3 decades (e.g. in pensions, healthcare costs, and homeowners' insurance). But when Democrats start speaking as if the majority of Americans are in acute economic distress, it puts them out of tune with much of the electorate.

UPDATE, 5/6/09: What Rose actually said, in a Dec. 23, 2007 Washington Post op-ed, is that between 1979 and 2007,"the number of people in households that bring in more than $100,000... rose from 12 percent to 24 percent." Rose doesn't say whether the 1979 percentage is inflation adjusted. But he's a reputable economist, so let's assume that it is.  His broad point that per capita income has risen in this period holds -- though it's largely offset by the rise of one-income households, the fraying of the safety net, and the disproportionate rises in the cost of housing, higher education and health care.

* While the Wikipedia article places the 19% of U.S. households earning over $100k in 2005, the 2006 Census figures show the same percentage.

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