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Things Looking Up at the Top, Down at the Bottom

March 8, 2012 at 3:53 PM

My latest post for US News & World Report juxtaposes two new studies on the nation’s highest- and lowest-income people:

  • A study from Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, updating the Piketty-Saez data on income concentration to include data from 2009 and 2010, showed that the top 1 percent’s share of total income — which has surged in recent years to levels last seen in the Roaring Twenties — was on the rise again in 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery.
  • A study from the National Poverty Center showed that the number of extremely poor Americans — those living on less than $2 per person a day—more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, to 1.46 million.

Connecting the dots, I concluded:

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 [in the 1996 welfare reform law, which has led to a sharp drop in TANF benefits] appears to be an important factor contributing to the rise in extreme poverty, although SNAP [food stamp] benefits have filled some of the gap.

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?