The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the gap between America’s rich and poor is the largest it has been in more than 50 years of tracking income inequality.
Demographic experts say that long-term economic and societal trends are fueling the divide, which continues draining income and opportunity from the post-industrial heartland while allowing wealth to pool in a handful of increasingly vibrant coastal states.
“The well-to-do and upper classes make the elite neighborhoods and downtowns boom with activity, while the middle and working classes across the country keep getting squeezed,” said Richard Longworth, a distinguished fellow on global cities at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs.
The figures were reported on Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey.
They come despite the median U.S. household income last year hitting a new record at almost $62,000, historically low unemployment and a healthy national economy that has witnessed 10 consecutive years of GDP growth.
The survey found that Utah, Alaska, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota had the most economic equality. Meanwhile, the income gap grew wider in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia.
Economists measure income inequality using the Gini Index, which examines the distance between the country’s top and bottom incomes. The index works on a scale of 0 to 1; a score of “0” indicates perfect equality, while a score of “1” indicates perfect inequality, where one household has all the income.
According to the survey, from 2017 to 2018 the Gini Index grew from 0.482 to 0.485, a statistically significant jump. Over the past five decades, the index has been rising steadily.
The 2020 presidential election has put the contentious issue increasingly in the spotlight.
Earlier this month, when Census officials revealed that median household incomes had reached $62,000, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers praised Trump administration economic policies for helping “those typically left behind” and increasing wages for “lower-income families.”
Two leading Democratic presidential candidates — Sens. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — have disagreed. They are proposing to create a “wealth tax” for the nation’s richest citizens as a way to reduce wealth disparities.
“While the Census Bureau report shows a welcome increase last year in median family income,” Mr. Sanders said earlier this month, “the fact is that household incomes still are 1.6% below the 2007 level, the year before the last recession began. The wealthy, meanwhile, have never had it so good.”
Income inequity factors heavily in the nation’s current rural-urban and red state-blue state schism between conservatives and liberals, pollsters say.
Mr. Longworth, author of the 2007 book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism,” told The Washington Times that rural America wrestles with the “economic anxiety narrative” which in turn contributes to social segregation across the country.
Key factors of inequality include flattened incomes, reduced employment opportunities and deteriorating housing stock, experts say.
Against this backdrop, the nation’s wealthiest citizens have seen the value of their stocks, properties and other assets increase dramatically since the great recession in 2008, demographic experts say.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.