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Republican Presidents and Inequality

December 9, 2016

The new findings on growing inequality by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman are deeply disturbing. They demonstrate again how extreme overall inequality has become in America. The top 1 percent’s share of all pretax income went from 10.7 percent in 1980 to a little over 20.2 percent in 2014, while the share claimed by the bottom 50 percent fell from 19.9 percent in 1980 to 12.5 percent in 2014.

But that’s not the whole story. I looked into their data, which cover five presidents from 1980 to 2014, and found that both the gains at the top and the losses by the bottom half varied a lot across those presidencies. Fully 73 percent of the gains by the top 1 percent happened from 1980 to 1992 and from 2000 to 2007, when Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush held the White House. Moreover, the income share of the rich virtually stagnated from 2007 to 2014, mostly under Barack Obama. Equally important, 71 percent of the decline in the share of total income claimed by the bottom 50 percent also happened during Reagan and the two Bushes — and again, under Obama, their share in 2014 was virtually the same as it was in 2011.

Politics and policy matter, so income inequality worsened much more under Reagan and the two Bushes than under Bill Clinton and Obama. The final tally: Republicans held the White House 57.6 percent of the time examined here, and 72 percent of the increase in inequality happened during their terms. Democrats held the White House 42.4 percent of the time here, and only 28 percent of the increase in inequality happened on their watches.

Sadly, it’s all too easy to imagine how the top 1 percent and the bottom 50 percent will fare under Donald Trump.