Indie Economics

Is inflation a problem? Look at income brackets

David Brancaccio Oct 20, 2014

It was a case of two people, separated by 243 statute miles, having the same thought at the same time. 

I was on the air talking to an expert about the government’s main assessment of inflation, and meanwhile, a listener near Washington, D.C. was getting annoyed. It would turn out that Gregory, from Falls Church, Virginia was thinking the same thing I was: It’s one thing to say that the Consumer Price Index  hasn’t moved up much in recent years. But be careful before you conclude that inflation is therefore not a problem. 

“Can you please get someone on your show who actually knows that there is real price inflation?” Gregory wrote in a note to us. “Every time I hear one of your guests talk about low inflation, or CPI as reported by the government, I cringe with disbelief!”

I myself wasn’t cringing with disbelief in that shared moment, but I was thinking I’d better do something soon in our ongoing Marketplace Inflation Calculator series on what has been happening to incomes over time. It is one thing to point towards low inflation (low if you leave out the cost of higher education; low if you leave out the cost of health care; low if you leave out the cost of rental apartments in America). Gregory, however, was pointing out that if what we earn is sliding, then our budgets will still be stretched  even when CPI just treads water.   

Experts often tell us that our incomes are mostly “stagnant,” but what do the official numbers show? Our inflation series looks at prices over the last 25 years. The government helpfully examines household income over time by breaking down what we earn into five categories (or brackets). These include the bottom 20 percent of earners, the next to the bottom 20 percent, the middle 20 percent and so forth. When I looked through the data and adjusted for inflation, the numbers were there for everyone to see.

The income of the bottom 20 percent of households in America, on average, did not go up in 25 years, once you adjust for inflation. Those incomes didn’t just stagnate, they went down. The next-to-poorest of the five income categories? The average household income for those Americans also fell. Let’s call the middle income category a draw; depending on which inflation assumptions you use, incomes either went up a tad or fell a tad over 25 years. You already know about the top two earning categories; those went sharply up the last quarter century, the top category by a lot. 

When hearing statistics like these, it’s common to argue that many families these days have not just one, but two or more earners to consider, and this should be taken into account before claiming that incomes are “stagnant” for many Americans. Even so, the data is already adjusts for that in the case above: It is data for average households, not average individual incomes.

The numbers showing that the bottom 40 percent of Americans make less now than they did a quarter century ago is a core notion for anyone thinking about wealth and poverty in America.

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