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an LBO overview

last update: May 9, 2000

Material well-being

Income and poverty


This is a revised version of a piece that appeared in LBO #80 (November 1997). Many of the charts are updated through 2004 in this article.

The charts are based on public domain data massaged by LBO. Please do not reproduce or disseminate without permission.


Census Bureau figures released in October 1997 show that the average (median) U.S. household had still not regained the income lost in the 1989-93 slump. Longer term, average 1996 incomes were virtually the same as 1973's, meaning 23 years of stagnation. So, despite the recent bout of good news on wages and employment reported elsewhere in this issue, there's a lot of catching up to do. For a country built on myths, and partial realities, of upward mobility, this is a strange state of affairs.

There have been several long waves of polarization and depolarization throughout U.S. history. Early America, from colonial days through the first years of the 19th century, was notable for having a far more egalitarian distribution of income than Europe (if, that is, you overlook the slaves).* That was not to last. Right-wingers who love to quote Alexis de Tocqueville on the wonders of the American way of life rarely include this observation by the French visitor: "I am of the opinion...that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest that ever existed.... The friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy...penetrates into [America], it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter."


*Of course you can't overlook the slaves. A number of readers objected to the original wording in LBO #80 that "Early America, from the colonial days through the first years of the 19th century, was notable for having a far more egalitarian distribution of income than Europe (if, that is, you overlook the slaves.)" The parentheses were intended to emphasize the exception, not marginalize