March 18th, 2008


Trends in U.S. Economic Stratification

The U.S. Census Bureau produces a Statistical Abstract of the United States, which includes a document on Income, Expenditures, Poverty, and Wealth (Section 13).  In this document, there is a section on Personal Income and Its Disposition: 1990 to 2006 (Table 656).  According to that table, net personal current taxes1 have risen from $593 billion in 1990 to $1,050 billion in 2004, an increase of approximately 177.066 percent over 14 years.  There is also a document on Business Enterprise (Section 15), which has a section on Corporations—Selected Financial Items: 1990 to 2004 (Table 730).  According to that table, corporate income tax after credits rose from $96 billion in 1990 to $224 billion in 2004, an increase of approximately 133.333 percent over the same 14 years.  Comparatively, that means tax on individuals rose approximately 43.732 percent more than tax on corporations during that period.

What the census data does not include is distribution of wealth by area or type of area (urban, suburban or rural).  The document does not include their definition of poverty, though I was able to find Current Population Survey (CPS) - Definitions and Explanations, which includes a brief of their poverty definition (search for "Poverty definition" about two-thirds down).  Interestingly, the bureau's current definition of poverty is based on the Department of Agriculture’s 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey—the first edition of a survey which is no longer used to calculate consumption; needless to say this information is outdated.  Their definition also does not actually consider area or type of area:  "The poverty thresholds do not vary geographically, but they are updated annually for inflation with the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U)."

According to the United States Department of Health & Human Services, the 2008 poverty guideline for an individual is $10,400.  Interestingly, the current minimum wage of $5.85 per hour and full-time standard of 35 hours per week means an individual with full-time employment should make $10,647 before taxes.  The 2008 tax rate for an individual earning between $8,026 and $32,550 is 15 percent, meaning that a full-time employee making minimum wage only receives $9,049.95 after federal taxes are removed, but before removing state or other taxes.  This means that current law does not ensure that a full-time employee will make enough to escape poverty, even excluding low employment opportunities and the abundance of part-time employment.  Even the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007 will only raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour starting July 24, 2009, creating $11,215.75 in wages for a full-time employee in 2010 (again excluding non-federal taxes), at which point the poverty guideline will be closer to $11,0502.

At least by that point, the federal minimum wage should be slightly above the federal poverty threshold, though wages are not considered to be substantially above the poverty threshold unless they equal at least 125 percent of that threshold—in this case, $13,812.50 or $16,250 pretax, which would mean about $8.93 per hour3.  This also does not solve the problem of poverty thresholds for individual states, counties, cities, and boroughs.  The federal threshold is merely an average, which incorporates large numbers of people living in low-income areas of low-income states and ignores the economic stratification between urban and rural areas.  This kind of information is especially important considering how common it is for individuals and households living in urban areas to be making wages below the local poverty threshold.  Ideally, each state, county, and city should have its own poverty threshold calculated, and minimum wages for any given city (or town or borough) would be computed to meet at least 125 percent of that threshold in addition to matching or beating the minimum wage for the broader area (county, state and federal).

(Because I was bored and sociology eats my brain.)

Net personal current taxes is defined here as such:  "Tax payments (net of refunds) by persons (except personal contributions for government social insurance) that are not chargeable to business expense.  Personal taxes include income taxes, personal property taxes, motor vehicle licenses, and other miscellaneous taxes."

2  This is a projection based on current HHS Poverty Guideline Computations
.  Multiplying the weighted poverty threshold by the inflation rate for two years prior (i.e., 2005) to a given year (i.e., 2007) tends to create a significantly accurate prediction for that year's (2007's) weighted poverty threshold (accurate within 0.03 percent).  The average inflation rate from 2004 to 2008 is 1.029; this is the rate used here to predict figures for 2009 and, based on the projected 2009 figures, this rate is also used to project figures for 2010.

3  By these estimates, and an extension of the 2009 and 2010 estimates into 2011, the Fair Minimum Wage Act would need to be extended into 2011, raising the minimum wage to $8.25 on July 24, 2010, and again to $9.20 on July 24, 2011.
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