New census findings on growing American income gap

The United Census Bureau released 2009 income figures recently and the news is not good: the income gap between the richest and poorest is at its widest level since 1968.

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.

At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, census data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.

Several key things to note:

1. A complete historical perspective is not possible since the Census didn’t collect household income information before 1967. But this most recent data can still be compared to 40+ years.

2. The US has the largest Gini coefficient, a statistic used in a lot of international comparisons of income, of any “Western industrialized nation.”

3. Even with the recent economic troubles, the incomes of the wealthiest (the top 5%) went up while those around the median income (about $50,000), with 50% of American below this income level, went down.

These are statistics that still matter and have important societal consequences without having to get into a discussion about whether it is moral or immoral for people to earn a lot of money.