Helping the Super Rich at the Expense of the Super Poor

Why do policymakers seem to prioritize the top 1 percent over the extreme poor?

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Chad Stone is chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Bloomberg reporter Max Abelson created quite a stir in the blogosphere with his tales of woe from the top 1 percent. "People who don't have money don't understand the stress," said a specialist in financial planning for the wealthy. Maybe he should talk to the heads of the estimated 1.5 million households, which include about 2.8 million children, that the National Poverty Center estimates live on $2 or less in income per day in any given month—one of the World Bank's main indicators of poverty in developing countries.

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First, though, let's talk about what's going on at the top. Yes, 2008 and 2009 were relatively tough times for the top 1 percent. According to new estimates from Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, the top 1 percent absorbed almost half of aggregate household income losses from 2007 to 2009 and their share of total pretax income fell from 23.5 percent to 18.1 percent. But look at the chart below. Even with these losses, the share of income flowing to the top 1 percent has surged in recent years—to levels last seen in the Roaring Twenties—and was on the rise again in 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery. The dot-com collapse proved to be nothing more than a speed bump, and arguably the financial crisis and Great Recession will have similarly transitory effects.

Income Concentration

Turning to the other end of the income scale, my colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have been busy documenting true hardship in America, including the developing-country level of poverty highlighted by the National Poverty Center. The chart below highlights two key findings: 

  • The number of extremely poor families—those living on less than $2 per person a day—more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, to 1.46 million. As the National Poverty Center report states, "This growth has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform," which replaced a program providing cash benefits to all eligible households with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a program providing a fixed pot of money (a block grant) in which the value of benefits has declined significantly since 1996.
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program, is a powerful antidote to extreme poverty. Including SNAP benefits in the definition of income cuts extreme poverty significantly.
  • SNAP Cuts Extreme Poverty

    So, things are very good and getting better for those at the very top. Meanwhile, extreme poverty has increased significantly at the very bottom. The block-granting of cash assistance in TANF appears to be an important factor contributing to the rise in extreme poverty, although SNAP benefits have filled some of the gap.

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    Doesn't that make you wonder about the priorities of policymakers who block every effort to restore tax rates at the top to the levels that prevailed in the very strong 1990s economic expansion, while they argue for policies that weaken the safety net by replicating TANF and turning effective programs like SNAP into block grants?

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