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U.S. Income Distribution: Just How Unequal?

With inequality now a front-page issue, the stats that measure inequality have taken on a new importance. And no inequality stat has a longer pedigree — or more confusion surrounding it — than the ‘Gini coefficient.’

By Salvatore Babones

Levels of income inequality in America today are running at record levels. Activists from the Occupy movement have placed rising inequality firmly on the national agenda, and inequality looks to figure prominently in the 2012 election campaigns.

The Gini coefficient was first defined in a 1912 paper by an Italian economist.

All this makes inequality statistics suddenly newsworthy, but how do statisticians measure something as slippery as inequality? Some people obviously have more than others, but how does that difference translate into numbers that represent the level of inequality for an entire society?

Anyone following the inequality debate so far has probably heard of the Gini coefficient. America’s Gini coefficient is 46.9. Or 37.0. Or maybe as high as 57.4. Really, it depends who you ask.

The Gini coefficient was first defined in a 1912 paper by the Italian economist Corrado Gini (1884-1965). The coefficient measures the degree the degree of concentration in a country’s income distribution. Social statisticians today use many different inequality measures, but none more than the Gini coefficient.

The Gini coefficient amounts to a kind of percentage and can run from 0 to 100. A Gini of 0 represents 0 percent concentration in a country’s income distribution. In a country with a Gini coefficient of 0, everyone receives exactly the same income.

A Gini coefficient of 100 represents 100 percent concentration in a country’s income distribution. In a country with a Gini of 100, one person receives all of the country’s income. Everyone else gets nothing.

The official Gini coefficient for the United States has shot way up from the all-time low set in 1968.

In between 0 and 100, Gini coefficients are harder to interpret. A Gini coefficient of 50 represents 50 percent concentration in a country’s income distribution. What does it mean to have 50 percent concentration in a country’s income?

A Gini of 50 could mean that half the people share all of the income while the other half get nothing. In other words, a country that literally consisted of haves and have-nots in a 50-50 split would have a Gini coefficient of 50.

This scenario, of course, isn’t very realistic. Everyone, no matter how poor, has to have some income to live. There are no literal have-nots.

We could also have a Gini coefficient of 50 with the top 10 percent of a country’s population very well-off, the next 50 percent more or less equal, and the bottom 40 percent very poor.

With some fiddling around the edges, that’s more or less the situation in America today.

According to the Census Bureau, the official Gini coefficient for the United States was 46.9 in 2010, the most recent year with data available. This is way up from the all-time low of 38.6 set in 1968.

Income inequality statistics can differ depending on how income is defined.

Gini coefficients can be used to measure the concentration of any distribution, not just the distributions of income. Higher concentrations translate into higher inequality. Lower concentrations mean lower inequality.

For example, wealth inequality in America runs much higher than income inequality. New York University economist Edward Wolff estimates the Gini coefficient for household wealth — net worth — in the United States to be 86.5, based on 2009 data. That’s much higher than any income inequality estimate.

Leaving aside wealth and other forms of inequality, even income inequality statistics can differ depending on how income is defined.

The most common definition of income used by the Census Bureau and other statistical agencies is total money income of a household, excluding capital gains. All of the members of a household are assumed to share in the household’s combined income.

Household income includes wages, salaries, interest, dividends, alimony payments, child support, Social Security payments, and any other cash transfers. It doesn’t include food stamps, Medicare, or other non-cash benefits.

A major gap in the measurement of income inequality is the exclusion of capital gains, profits made on increases in the value of investments. Capital gains are excluded for purely practical reasons. The Census doesn’t ask about them, so they can’t be included in inequality statistics. 

Real levels of income inequality in America run much higher than the official Census Bureau figures would suggest.

Obviously, the rich earn much more from investments than the poor. As a result, real levels of income inequality in America are much higher than the official Census Bureau figures would suggest.

Edward Wolff, working with Federal Reserve Board data that included capital gains, but not government transfer payments, put the figure at 57.4 for 2006.

How does America’s Gini coefficient compare to those of other countries? Comparative data on income inequality are reported by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The OECD reports three different Gini coefficients for the United States and other countries (see accompanying table). The first covers the Gini coefficient for wages earned from work. The second traces overall income inequality. The third measures inequality in total living standards, including government-provided health and education benefits.

According to the OECD, the Gini coefficient for income inequality in the United States is just 37.0. The OECD is highly secretive about its methodologies, so it’s impossible to know why this is so different from the official figure of 46.9 reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Whatever exact procedures the OECD uses, it claims to use the same procedures for all countries. According to the OECD, the Gini coefficient for wages is highest in Italy (46.5) and the United Kingdom (45.6). The United States comes in third-highest out of the 18 developed countries for which data are available.

Including the value of government-provided health and education benefits makes the United States look even more unequal compared to other developed countries.

After other sources of income are included, however, the United States is by far the most unequal of all 18 countries. The United States (37.0) is well ahead of number two Portugal (34.7) and number three United Kingdom (34.5).

The United States scores worse mainly because Social Security, unemployment insurance, and other cash benefits in the United States contribute much less to income than comparable programs in other countries.

Including the value of government-provided health and education benefits makes the United States look even more unequal compared to other developed countries. In this final comparison the U.S. Gini coefficient (30.3) is still worse than number two Portugal (29.1) and far worse than number three Italy (26.2) and all other developed countries.

By this last measure, the most equal countries in the world are the usual suspects: Denmark (19.4), Norway (19.3), and Sweden (18.1).

So is America’s Gini coefficient 46.9 (Census Bureau), 37.0 (OECD), or 57.4 (Edward Wolff based on Federal Reserve data)? It depends what you mean by income. If by income you mean all the money that households get from all sources, including both government transfers and capital gains, then it’s probably around 50, give or take a point.

So we’re right back to the haves and have-nots. That we’re a society of haves and have-nots may not be literally true, but it’s more than just a metaphor. America is suspended roughly half-way between full equality and a situation in which all of the country’s income is concentrated in one person’s hands.

In other words, we’re half-way between a socialist utopia and an absolute monarchy. America in 1968 was hardly a socialist country, but it was much closer to the utopia. Maybe it’s time to turn back the clock on income inequality. Utopia doesn’t sound so bad.

  • Jerome Bigge

    The USA is probably the worst country of all developed countries to be a poor person.  On the other hand a rich person would probably pick the USA over all other developed countries.  The poor are treated the worst here and the rich are treated the best.

    If people could move freely between any developed country, the US population would  probably fall to about a third of what it is today.  Since except for the rich, you are better off living most anywhere else in the developed world than in the USA.  The concept of USA “exceptionalism” only applies if you are a rich person.  Otherwise you’re better off elsewhere in most any developed country (with the exception of Greece) which isn’t shown on this listing.

    Of course the USA could be “fixed”, but the rich wouldn’t like it and their political party, “The National Social Darwinist Rich Peoples’ Party” aka the Republican Party wouldn’t allow it to happen short of their forcible overthrow in a violent revolution.

    • The Pulpit

      The US also has the most obese poor people in the world.  So they are not staving like in Subsaharan Africa.


      • Jose Manuel Tobar

        Because -_____- McDonald’s is fucking cheap…honestly it’s less than 5 dollars for a 1,500+ calorie meal…that’s why…you think a poor person who works even has time to cook a real meal? no they don’t and they’re too tired to do so.

        EDIT: Just in case you didn’t know, here in the USA, there’s a McDonald’s on every fucking corner.

        • mjm2092

          Well if liberals get their way and DOUBLE the minimum wage, that 1,500 calorie meal will double in price too, and not just at McDonald’s, but every fast-food restaurant and grocery store where minimum-wage-labor accounts for the majority of the price you pay. Even if (by some miracle) most of these workers didn’t immediately lose their jobs due to bankruptcy of the small businesses from such an overly dramatic increase in minimum wage, the middle class who were making more than minimum wage at the time would effectively become the new lower class by the relative increase in cost of living. But at least liberals love the poor and middle class enough to put them on a strict starvation diet and save them from obesity. Tough love

          • Matt R

            MJM, you might want to focus less on liberals and on your own arguments. Rhetoric is not your strong point and each point you make are easily refuted. But you are not here to actually make a real argument, you are here to blast liberals. Anyone with a bit of sense sees through you, though.

      • Mister África

        being obese has nothing to do with good nutrition, a person can be obese by eating empty calories (cause are the cheapest) and lack of essential nutrients and thus be starving biologically speaking

        • DHFabian

          Yes, but it’s a common fallacy. I’m always amazed by the ignorance of our better off. Regardless, the poor are rarely fat, but obesity commonly occurs among low-income people.

      • DHFabian

        Yes, indeed. Like most of our bourgeoisie, you confuse “poor” and “low income.” Obesity is common among low-income Americans because of their food supply. The only way to stretch a budget is to depend on starches and fats. Fresh, unprocessed foods are costly.

    • Shells

      The average poor person in America has more wealth than the average European. Yes, that sentence means exactly how it reads: The average POOR person in America is better off than the AVERAGE European.

      Check your facts.

      • essbird

        By whose measure? The decidedly nonpartisan Heritage Foundation? That’s the only place I find it. I can’t find any independent, credible source to back up your claim.

      • Koizumi-chan

        You ignore a fact. The average poor person in these both countries or continent if you may cannot live with the salary they are making. 20 U.S dollars is not equivalent to 20 Euro.

        • DHFabian

          Please try that again in comprehensive English.

      • DHFabian

        That is insane. The average poor American — yes, this sentence means exactly what it says — is far WORSE off than the average POOR European. This is because we ended poverty relief for our “surplus population” — those for whom there are no jobs, and increasingly, the unemployable. This was after the US had already spent years shipping out a huge number of our jobs. When you have NO income in the US, you are treated as a criminal at best. It has been “open season” on the homeless poor for years.

        Now then, how in God’s name did you reach your bizarre conclusion? Americans today respond to our poverty crisis by putting locks and chains on dumpsters to keep the desperately poor from finding a scrap of food. Are you too spoiled to comprehend what it would be like to try to survive on the streets? Most low-wage workers are a single job loss from losing everything, with no way back up. You can’t get a job without a home address, phone, bus fare. What do you think happens to them? The last I heard, there are 7 jobs for every 10 people who are struggling for a job right now. While that’s an improvement, what do you think happens to the three who are left out?

        • mjm2092

          Meanwhile in the real world, America has SNAP, housing assistance, and heating assistance for those below the poverty line JUST from Social Security, not to mention Medicare (total government healthcare), CHIP (additional state healthcare for children), and too many other state programs to list. But far more meaningful than that, America is also the most philanthropic country in the world according to every possible measure (including volunteer work per capita, charitable donations in both absolute terms and as a percentage of income, even food, clothing, and blood donation). Americans are more than 3.5 times as charitable as the average European, and this #1 ranking is unequivocal according to Charities Aid Foundation, World Giving Index, Gallup, and Giving USA Foundation

          And it’s not just for tax deductions either, as IRS records show that only about a third of people who file tax returns
          itemize their deductions—which means that most Americans (particularly
          middle- and lower-income citizens) don’t even claim the deductions to
          which they are entitled. Even among households earning over $120,000 per
          year, only about 40 percent itemize their deductions. Furthermore,
          research shows that virtually no one is motivated meaningfully to give
          only because of our tax system.

          Nobody starves in America or even goes without healthcare unless they outright REFUSE help, and for all of this philanthropy, America has less national debt (as a percentage of GDP) than MOST European countries, because personal philanthropy has a POSITIVE effect on GDP (increasing it by $15 for every $1 given), while tax-based programs only generate deadweight loss by scientific definition. Furthermore, the gesture of love implicit in personal charity is far more greatly appreciated than the detached complicity, and sometimes even guilt, associated with state assistance. America is #1 in philanthropy by a very large margin, and there is no nobler measure of greatness.

          • Matt R

            mjm you are not making a statistical or economic argument comparing Europe to the US, you are simply characterizing certain points about the US and only the US. If you were to compare all of your points to what happens in Europe, the reality is likely that it is much better to be a poor person in Europe than in the US because they are guaranteed, such as health care, as a right. So while in the US there are certain benefits, you have to apply for those benefits (that typically expire). So while there are certain benefits in the US, they are simply overshadowed by what Europeans are offered, and of course it depends on what country in Europe we are discussing.

            The idea that everyone in the US gets healthcare is obnoxious because it’s simply not true, while in much of Europe it is a basic right. and your argument that debt as a % of GDP is less than Europe is wrong, too.

            Your arguments about philanthropy and all that need to be backed up with evidence before I take you seriously, especially your philanthropy argument.

            So: a poor person is better off in Europe than in the US.

          • mjm2092

            If you actually look at the list of national debt to GDP by country, you’ll see that some European countries are better off than America and some are worse off. We used to have a bigger advantage before Obama raised our ratio a whopping 38% in just 7 years.


            So how, exactly, is a poor person better off in Europe?


            For more sources, a Google search for “philanthropy by country” will show that all sources, including liberal sources like the Huffington Post, list America as either #1 or #2 in the world, and those who include demographics show that the poor and middle class are more generous than the rich, and the religious are the most generous of all, possibly explaining why the only country that compares to America is Myanmar which is comparable in the number of faithful.

    • DHFabian

      Interesting point. When Reagan was first elected, launching the long campaign against our poor, the overall quality of life in the US was rated at #1 among all nations. By the time Obama was elected, this had already fallen to #43.

      • Matt R

        where on earth did you those ratings from?

  • Shameka Robinson

    I live in the US and I would leave in a heartbeat…

    • J Smith

      Delta is ready when you are……Buy a ticket and leave..

      • Koizumi-chan

        I like that J.

      • DHFabian

        I would love to. Air travel is for the well-off/business people.

    • Karsten Engelmann


      • Shameka Robinson

        I hate America because I want to live abroad? Please explain that logic…

        • Karsten Engelmann

          Uh, with all do respect, saying you live in America and would leave in a heart beat – rather than trying to stay and FIX america tells me you are a quitter or hater. Now, I think you are probably an intelligent and hard working woman, so that leaves a person who hates the US so much thay want to leave in a heartbeat. Perhaps you did not mean to say what you said…

          • Shameka Robinson

            I meant what I said, I did not intend for it to be taken as you received it. I love my country. I try to bring about as much positive change as a single bleeding heart can, but sometimes I imagine the grass may be greener on the other side and I wouldn’t hesitate at the opportunity to check it out. Thank you for replying! Please enjoy your weekend. :)

          • Peter Deepinsky

            If most people in the US are descendants of immigrants, that means at some point in our family histories someone said, “Screw this! I’m outta here!”. Obviously, they decided to run away from their problems and not stay and FIX the country they once resided in. Aside from most African-Americans (not sure what term to use for people who arrived from Africa in the past 30 years or so, sorry. :( ) and Native Americans, we’re descended from quitters and haters. My father is a quitter and hater; people who come here to flee oppressive regimes or seek opportunities that are not available in their homelands, are also, obviously, quitters and haters.

            There is bravery and courage in fighting overwhelming odds for a good cause; there is also wisdom in realizing that the battle is over. Regardless of the choice you make, best of luck to you.

    • DHFabian

      Save me a spot! Right now, 42 other nations have a higher quality of life than the US (yep, the US has fallen to #43).

  • benleet

    The yearly income of about 50 million U.S. households (out of a total of 120 million) is equal to the income of 1 million households. The wealth of about 100 million households is equal to the wealth of 1 million. Talking about inequality is difficult to convey in a meaningful way, and the Gini is the most difficult and ineffective way. This next sentence comes from a Congressional Budget Office report: “The Gini index for market

    income was 0.590, and the Gini index for after-tax income was 0.483.” This is from the CBO report “Trends in the Historical Distribution of Income between 1979 to 2007”, Appendix B. This report has a long section on the Gini. It shows the top 1% gained income share over the 28 year period, increasing from 8% of all income to 17% post-tax and post-transfer income. In a recent comment elsewhere I proposed to tax 12% of the income of the top-earning 1% and apply it to government jobs creation. What would that mean? It would reduce the income of the 1% by about $200 billion which would then be applied to employ 5 million unemployed and reduce the unemployment rate to around 4%. Since the income of the 1% was about half their present income 30 years ago, this would not diminish their income much. What does one remember with the Gini index number? Not much. It works as a comparison between countries. It’s better to state facts in terms people can recognize. For instance the combined wage income of 75% of workers, all earning less than $50,000 a year, is less than the total personal income of the one percent. The wage earnings of half of all workers is less than 7% of total personal income. I’ve done this at my blog, One of my favorites is: the average household owns $498,000 in assets, but the lower 50% of households own on average just $11,000 per household. No matter how you phrase it, the meaning is almost totally lost on ears that just don’t seem to care. All too often people just don’t get it.

    • qusdis

      Yeah, the Gini coefficient for the US is probably 0.54-0.59 at this point. Up there with several Third World nations.

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  • noname

    People can ‘t we fight?????? we seems to know the problems but why can’t we the people of america fight back, pls!

    • Answer

      Becaus it seems that those who want to fight are illiterate and/or uneducated.
      There is no space before an apostrophe (can ‘t); one question mark is sufficent (more usually apply for onmatopeias or very informal settings); there is no ‘s’ at the end of ‘seem’ when using the first person plural; ‘but’ cannot be used to link a statement and a question; there are two commas missing in the second part of the second ‘sentence’ seen as “the people of america” is an epithet to “we”; ‘America’ has a capital letter and is in fact should be ‘USA’ and not America; there should be a question mark at the end of the second sentence, not an exclamation mark as ‘why’ is interrogative. Finally, “pls” is a file format and has nothing to do with anything you have previously said. You may have wanted to say ‘please’ in which case the use of a ‘why’ question instead of a ‘can we’ question or a request is also incorrect.
      The level of speech and litteracy generally hints at the level of the argument. I am impressed both by the naïveness and simplicity of the argument and the sheer number of mistakes you have crammed into 20 words.

      • Grammar Nazi

        Thank you for correcting the previous mistakes, but now I feel obligated to correct yours. “Becaus” is missing an e. Furthermore, when using because to begin a sentence, it must be a complete one. The sentence you wrote to begin your comment was a fragment. The sentence was a subordinate clause and needed an independent clause to be complete.

  • DHFabian

    The popular liberal “inequality” discussion is a fraud. They study the gap between the better off and well off, the middle class and rich, utterly ignoring the canyon between the poor and middle class. They surely know that not everyone can work (health, etc.), and that there aren’t jobs for all who urgently need one. We got rid of poverty relief for the jobless poor, those in greatest need. Nevertheless, Democrats and our liberal media have erased any mention of our poverty crisis.

  • mjm2092

    “The United States scores worse mainly because Social Security,
    unemployment insurance, and other cash benefits in the United States
    contribute much less to income than comparable programs in other

    This essentially says that Americans rely less on government assistance than citizens of other countries, thus implying more of our income is actually earned through working. Even if you could somehow claim that is a BAD thing, you need only to look at the Gini coefficient on a more local level to find that the most liberal cities (DC, LA, NYC, etc.) have always had highest inequality of the entire country and are only getting worse, despite having both the highest rates of state assistance spending per capita and highest tax rates to fund them.

    The superior solution that is speciously ignored is America’s overwhelming personal philanthropy, which is #1 in the world according to Charities Aid Foundation, World Giving Index, Gallup, Giving USA Foundation, and likely any other index on the subject. Those who truly care about the poor do not rely on the government to take care of them, but instead volunteer their own time and money, and no other country even comes close. The average American is 3.5 times more charitable than the average European, and we are even more likely to donate lifesaving blood, which costs NOTHING but a small amount of effort! So instead of complaining that the government doesn’t do enough, or deluding yourself that “you helped” just by voting (passing the buck), try actually lifting a finger YOURSELF to help the cause. Showing the poor that you, personally, care about their well-being, is a truer gesture of love that they will appreciate far more than any detached social program.

    • Matt R

      The US gini is .45. Los Angeles is at .5 and Bridgeport is at .55. That does not really hold up with your “liberal cities… have always had highest inequality of the entire country”.

      What’s more- those so-called liberal cities prop up the red, southern states that would be really worse off. If Los Angeles (and California in general) didn’t have to support much of the south, we’d be a lot better off. This basically explains why :

      So maybe you should put down the angry rhetoric and focus on facts as a basis of your arguments.

      • mjm2092

        Well last I checked, 0.5 and 0.55 are higher than 0.45, so yes, it does support what I said. Cities tend to have more very wealthy and very poor residents, it might not be “because” they are liberal, it could just be they are liberal because they are very rich or poor, as both extremes tend to be far more liberal than the middle class. Don’t believe me? Go to Google and type “Party of the rich”. Your head might explode.

        As for your second claim, it seems you didn’t actually READ the article you linked. First, it explains how DEMOCRATS were responsible for the historical higher federal spending in southern states, then it provides an interactive county-level map that directly contradicts your claim. Notice the routinely higher population of the most impoverished counties relative to others in the state. That’s because they are URBAN counties, typically part of a major city, and if you were to look at such counties on an electoral map, virtually ALL of them would be BLUE. In Pennsylvania, Obama carried the state by winning all 12 of the “neediest” counties who paid the lowest State and Federal tax per capita and received the highest state welfare per capita, according to the PA Dept. of Public Welfare. TEN of these counties were part of Philadelphia, an appropriate place for the convention of the party of the rich and the welfare collectors. The red counties financially support the blue counties in EVERY state, no matter how “red” or “blue” the state is as a whole.

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