IN THE UNITED STATES
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DISTRIBUTION OF INCOME
IN THE UNITED STATES
THE STUDENT LEAGUE FOR
New York, N. Y.
The Student League for Industrial Democracy-
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Distribution o f In come in the United States , like all
S.L,I L D. Research Tracts is published by the Student League for
Industrial Democracy as part of its program of education for in-
creasing democracy in our economic, political and social life
The author alone is responsible for the material in this Tract
which does not necessarily represent the opinions of the Student
League for Industrial Democracy.
Table of Contents
Introduction to the Question . , . , 1
The Effect of Taxes . 4
The Situation for the Upper Classes . . . . 8
Savings and Assets . . . . * 10
Comments . , . . 10
S.L.I.D. Research Tracts . . * 13
Related L.I.D. Pamphlets 14
Some Other L.I.D. Pamphlets 15
THE LEAGUE FOR INDUSTRIAL DEMOCRACY .... 16
Distribution of Income in the United States is the fifth
S.L.I.D. Research Tract. The Tracts were originated by the
Student League for Industrial Democracy to help celebrate the
fiftieth anniversary of its parent organization, the League for
This series is dedicated to that noble faith in democracy
which has inspired the LID during its half century of pioneering
efforts and which will always lead free men in their search for a
better world .
About the_ Au thor
SLm hJ^" Gabrlel KOlk °' f ° rmer National Vice Chairman of
SLID has been an active member on several campuses for a num-
ber of years. He has written articles for various socialist and
liberal publications, including the New Republic, the Socialist Call
f^™ 4 ^^™^^ American soci'al his-
tory. He is presently working for his Ph.D.
Editoria l Note
A great deal has been published recently about the remarkable
rise m real income that has come about'in the United ""tes
Much has also been written about our increased national™
l~ g the question of measuring the AmerSn sTanSof "
Dr Harnw^r"" ^ l ° eXpress thelr appreciation to
ur. riarry W. Laidler, Executive Director of the T m an A i-
INTRODUCTION TO THE QUESTION
Dull statistics can often provide the foundation for mean-
ingful principle, and in any event are not infrequently the only
basis on which reliable judgments on and affecting our society can
be made. Though skepticism of figures is often justified because
of their frequent use in superficially buttressing unfounded asser-
tions, it should also be remembered that statistics can also be
utilized to deflate economic and social mythology, and are useful
in aiding our intellectual perception. One such example, -which
is the topic of this short tract, is the problem of income distribu-
tion and the various changes it has gone through in recent Ameri-
can history. Subject to the most passionate heats and distempers
when discussed by partisans of most sides, the topic nevertheless
deserves careful attention by students of history as well as pro-
fessional economists or statisticians. For in a careful study of
the topic can be found one indispensable tool for practically ana-
lysing the assertions often made as to the nature and character
of American society today.
Despite difficulties with methodological problems, cer-
tain over-all trends seem to be definable in the realm of income
distribution. The following charts, showing the percentage
shares of money income going to the national population divided
by tenths and halves, will serve as a basis for comparison*
9 + 6
9. 7. 6. 4. 3.
storical Statistics of the U
1 , Bureau of Cent
States - 1789-194 5 (Washington, 1949), Series A 176-194; Statisti-
cal A bstract of the Unit ed States - 1952 (Washington, 1952), charts
nosT" 311 and 313. Also Abstra ct for 1954.
# Round figures only available.
From the above figures one can thus see that the per-
h " hf S ° t "J c °» e S° to S to ^e lowest three-tenths of the popula-
tion have tended to decline almost consistently over the past
vacma?r,n W H J ' e £*' ° f thG ° ther inC ° me ■«"*» has te "ded to
lation LT " • In the "^ ° f the l0West half of ^e popu-
lation, however, one can see a definite and almost consistent ten-
dency towards a reduction in its share of the nationaHncome
One expert on income has written that " it may be
concluded that the capitalization of income approaches are sensi-
tive to year-to-year changes in the business cycle and, contrary
to changes in the distribution of income, inequality in the distri-
bution of wealth is accentuated during depression years IT 3 The
assertion has been made, therefore, that inequality of income
tends to increase during depression years simply because labor
is most susceptible to unemployment. While this seems still to
be the most reliable generalization so far, the increase of income
o ^e highest tenth of the nation, as well as the over-all decrease
to be the lowest third in the prosperity year, 1952, offers a sig-
nificant exception to the rule. fe
Taking into account the general inadequacy of the infor-
mation available, as well as the inevitable exceptions, it may be
necessary to conclude that "One sentence summarizes aptly Ld
complete y present knowledge about size distributions of income -
we know little more than that data are deficient in both quantiU
and quality, that income is very unequally distributed, and that a
2 . Ibid .
WpaUh £ , C ° nfer T ence on Research in National Income and
Wealth, Studies in I nccjm^andJj/eaUh (New York, 1939), III,
high standard of living cannot be attained on the average income
Given the same objective business conditions, income going to
various groups tends to restore itself to approximately similar
Contrary to generally accepted opinion, however, no re-
form movement since 1910 has yet introduced in any way a basic
movement towards economic equality, at least insofar as the dis-
tribution of income before taxes is concerned. Neither Wilson's
"New Freedom" or Roosevelt's "New Deal M "or Truman's "Fair
Deal" has changed this fact any, Indeed, the United States would
be closer to economic equality which business so fears if the in-
come percentages existing when Taft was President were preva-
Taken as a broad class, the shares of the wealthier
groups have increased, although the exact extent of it cannot be
precisely estimated. Two factors loom as basic to the under-
standing of what the varipus income groups may receive in addi-
tion to estimates taken from tax forms, census reports, and the
other raw materials from which the regular statistics are com-
piled. The first is income received "in kind," and the second is
inaccuracy in filing tax forms.
In a wider sense, income in kind can include earnings
in kind, home produced food, non-money gifts, charity and
social welfare, and public services. It is commonly accepted by
most experts, however, that in rural areas such income is a
meaningful factor mainly on lower income levels, but that in ur-
ban areas the reverse is true. The poor farmer may have all
the corn he can eat, which may be worth something as a supple-
ment to his meager income, but the businessman or corporate
executive may have his car, fuel, and meals for himself and
even his family taken off his business 1 expenses.
Indeed, many persons who live lushly on corporate ex-
pense accounts often find it difficult to go back to the conditions
their regular income affords them. No precise values can be
given to such income in kind, but it should be remembered as an
intangible factor in income distribution analysis.
4. Ibid, , XIII, pp. 3-4.
Of much greater importance is the tendency, widespread
at the least, for incomes to be understated, exemptions to be
overstated, and not to be filed. The majority of these cases
occur in upper income groups which do not have taxes deducted
in advance, so that figures of their shares on the charts are mini-
mized. "Hesitancy about answering questions on income and
wealth is more pronounced in the upper income classes, " is the
comment of one expert. 5 In addition, there still seems to be
something of a mental animus placed on wealth, and many
scholars evidently feel that frank confessions could have effects
favoring radical ideas. All this indicates that present estimates
of wealth in upper income groups are ,r . . .subject to a downward
bias of unknown proportions.
As Simon Kuznets states it, ". . .errors due to under-
statement of the income reported on the tax returns may have
been large- -larger than those in the countrywide income
totals. "" Though perhaps stated too modestly, it is precisely
these unknown quantities and doubts that could be decisive in in-
dicating that the present income distribution is even more radi-
cally in favor of upper income groups.
THE EFFECT OF TAXES
It has become something of a stock argument that de-
spite the great inequality of income in the United States, the im-
pact of taxation has compensated for the disparities to a con-
siderable extent. The thesis is that we have therefore achieved
social and economic equality and private enterprise simultane-
ously. Unfortunately, and to put it quite blandly, the available
facts indicate the economic inequality that actually exists. As
the situation really stands, one commentator, George Soule,
was forced to conclude that "Many people believe that high in-
come-tax rates in the upper brackets greatly modified this
5 " studies in Incom e and Weal th, XIII , p. 75.
6. Simon Kuznets, Shares of Upper In come Groups in
Income a nd _Savings (New York. 1953), p. xxx.
Inequality. This was not true, since if income taxes are taken
into consideration, it makes a difference of less than 1 percentag
point in the share of the total received by the upper 1 per cent or
by the upper 5 per cent of the income receivers." 3 It will later
be shown that this assertion is also accepted by other economists
with special knowledge in this field.
The following chart will indicate the distribution of money
income before and after taxes in 1950 and 1952.
Before federal income taxes
It is often cited that the tax rates on the highest incomes
are very steep, and that this in itself causes considerable level-
ling of income. From the previous over-all figures it is seen
that, all factors accounted for ,\ taxes do not shift the distribution
significantly. In 1952 the upper half of the income population re-
ceived 76 per cent of the money income after taxes as compared
to 79 per cent before. There are innumerable legitimate ways
for upper income groups to avoid the full tax rate, an advantage
they fully exploit. In addition to living off income ,r in kind" in
the form of expense accounts, the rich are able to receive in-
come from bonds and insurance which provide tax exempt
8. George Soule, Introduction to Economic Science^
(New York, 1948), p. 35.
9, Statistical Abstract - 1952, chart no. 311. Also 1954
interest. In addition, by use of trusts, gifts, and family partner
ships one may avoid the top brackets altogether. "All in all. . . "
commented Business Week in 1953, "the present tax structure is
hardly as repressive as the experts- -and most taxpayers- -have
In 1951 , the average theoretical tax rates on an income
of $500,000 annually, for a married person with two dependents,
was 81 per cent. In terms of what was actually taken in by taxes
the government in 1951 took only 62 per cent of the incomes of
those with $1 million or more annual income, or far less than
advertised. Il +
Contrary to reports of disaster for the wealthy, the
following statistics will show a tendency which bodes well for
Average Consumer Money Income After Federal Income Tax, by
At first glance one might imagine that the above figures indi-
cate the wealthy are not faring well, and one might conceivably
take such an approach if unwilling to view poverty as a relative
social fact. But the money taxed from the lower income groups
is money that, had it been spent, would have gone to purchase
10. "The Effects Cancel Out--So Far," Business
Week, June 13, 1953, p. 110.
11. Wall Street Journal, June 30, 1954, p. 11
12. Studies in In come and Wealth , Xlli, p. 195.
* The theoretical rates for $1 million are not avail-
such basic items as food, better housing, etc. The money
taxed from the rich was largely marginal, and meant a vaca-
tion in Canada instead of Europe, a Euick instead of a Cadillac,
Taking the previous comment into account, and remem-
bering the lowered purchasing power of the dollar from 1941 to
1947, a different mode of calculation—income units of $100--
can be used. Thus, during the period being covered, the lowest
fifth increased its wealth in unadjusted dollars about four units,
the second group increased it about eight and one half units,
the third group by about 11 l/2 units, the fourth group about 16
units, and the highest group by about 31 units.
Yet this type of approach to the problem can largely be
minimized, despite its general applicability to subsequent
years, by those who wish to look at another side of the coin.
But if one wishes to look at the income tax rates over the same
period (1941-1947), especially interesting facts arise. The fol-
lowing figures will indicate something of the present trend.
Average Effective Tax Rates, by Quintiles
tax rates 1
We now see that in terms of dollars the average tax of
the lowest fifth of the income population increased eight times
over the period, the second fifth 72 times, the third fifth about
16 times, the fourth fifth almost ten times, and the highest fifth
less than four times. Nor can it be said that the camel of
wealth would be unable to bear the additional load. In 1953, under
the Conservative Party, the Englishman earning 5,000 pounds,
or about $14,000 in American dollars, paid $9,248 in taxes,
13. Studies in Income and Wealth, XIII, P- 199-
whereas an American with two dependents
supposed to pay $2,770 in taxes.!* T he c
s earning $15,000 was
camel of wealth kept its
strong back, an
d burden might easily be increased
THE SITUATION FOR THE UPPER CLASSES
As has already been indicated, the pattern of the shares
of moneylncome received by the upper income cta.«v«r«
age 4 per cent during business expansion. Upper incom
savings, in turn, reflected these shifts.
The percentage of national income received by the top 1
from a high of 14.9 per cent in i« in _
1938 ■ In IS; EViTcS Tht Lome Pontage received
bWhe "p 5 per cenHf the Lome population between 1919 and
! 40 ranged "from a h lg h of 26 . 8 per cent in 1928 to a ow o M.l
per cent In 1920. In 1919 ^^/^^h^ should be
the -ney income shares ,n 940 23 ^ P*-ent ^
7ZlTZto^£loZ^ £»».. -any forms of income in
In 1941 when income taxation under the New Deal first
began assumin proportions of importance distmctl> , new —
trends began taking place, at least P arUa11 ^/" J^^e tax regu-
need and desire of the wealthy to cicumvent expensive tax reg
lations The following chart will indicate the trend.
14. New York Times , April 4, 1953, p. 2 E.
15. Kuznets, Shares_of Up F ^r_lncj 3 me_Grou| L s , p. xxxi
16. Statistical Ab S tractsj_I952_, chart no. 114.
Percentages of Individuals 1 Incomes Received by
Top 1% (Basic Variant) Top 5%
The trend clearly shows that the upper 1 and 5 per cent
of the national money income population is receiving consider-
ably less of the income than it did in previous years, although
there is no reason to suppose that the trend will go much further,
and it may have reached a reasonably stable equilibrium which,
if anything, will go up. Again it should be pointed out that these
figures minimize actual incomes of the wealthy, especially be-
cause they do not include capital gains. Since a top-bracket tax-
payer in 1952 could retain 74 per cent of his capital gains income,
but only 8 per cent of his regular income (purely theoretical
rates), it seems more than likely that there were significant
amounts of money available to the rich not included in these
figures. * 8
In terms of dollar units, or the minimum amount need-
ed to qualify for that income category, the lowest units in the
upper 1 per cent received from $2,100 per person in 1933, from
$4,200 per person in 1929, and from $5,600 per person in 1946.
To qualify for the lowest units of the upper 5 per cent of income
receivers, it was necessary to average a minimum per person of
$1,250 to 2,000 per person between 1918-1938, and $2,300 in
18. Bu siness Week , p. 108.
19, Kuznets, Shares of Upper Income Groups, intro.
SAVINGS AND ASSETS
x ,n*n -SO 1 per cent of America's families and indi-
In , f . Ln S3 000 a year, well below the minimum
viduals made less than * 3 ' 00 ° a / savings ranging from minus
standard of iving level -^ h fd n g ^ ^ ^ ^ ^.^
\LZ:tX^^t^ native savings and li.uid
assets). 21 *
• „ „f n. P American people naturally reflects
The savings of the Amm £ ■ distribution. The
Lhe situation rising from inequable - ° ^ ^^
average family liquid savings w . JJJ^ within certain ln -
and is decreasing every year Ne The aver age holdings
come groups the situation is ^^g >999 in early 19 51 was
among those families earning $3,000 to J. r, ^^ _ n
$250, or about enough for a ™° nth J^?™° he $1 , 00 to 1,999
L »2.000 to 2 999 category ; was $^ Jjj^
SSfSS^S'l^i* -d little orbing to fall bac k on
in the event of an emergency or unemployment.
v,i» whether the essential structure
It is highly q-^-^J^ Lly altered since the
of the American economy ha beer s^gni y ^ ^ grand
days when titans of ^gjj* 'S£n that a transformation
manner. Certainly it Is difficul to there ^ now
has occurred m income d 13 ™^ ^ economists that,
something of a common ^me^^g Y ^ ^ ^
if anything, present ^^ZTol^^sired goal, since they
iUTSr-r^^tS. the statistics indicate.
« rt f thp Abstracts do not give figures
* Subsequent issues of the ADstrac^
on net savings .
09 r T O Economic Outlook, March 1952; C.l.O.
Committee on Economic Prosperity, wi_ a _
For, after all, the upper tenth of the income population
has managed to receive a substantial income portion while con-
trolling a much greater section of the savings, and it is savings
equally distributed that in the long run serves as the consumers
demand reserve to aid the prevention of depressions. Coupled
with this greater control over savings, however, is an even more
extensive control by the very highest classes over the policy-
making machinery of the corporate and business structure which
can be manipulated to serve the interests to the very top income
levels in many ways.
In 1951 the mean dollar income of the highest tenth of
the income population was 25 times that of the lowest tenth and
twice as high as the mean income of the next to the highest tenth.
The income total received by the highest tenth after taxes was
greater than the incomes received by a full one-half of the income
population. In 1950 the cost of maintaining a wife and two school
age children at what the Bureau of Labor Statistics sets as the
minimum of health and decency standard required an income of
at least slightly over $4,000 a year. This budget excluded a
private telephone and any savings outside of a small insurance
policy; in other words, a hand to mouth existence. In 1950, a
third of the nation's families were making less than $2,500 a year
before taxation, and 63 per cent were making less than $4,000
before taxation. Taxation of the rich, little of which goes to
economic welfare, provides no consolation to this pattern.
Through the din and maze of statistics the crucial fact
appears that basic problems exist in our present economic order,
overlooking now the vaster polarization in savings, which are
causing continued, if not increased economic inequality and
which have not been significantly altered till now by either taxa-
tion, full employment, or moderate social welfare. Evidently
the problem is substantially more basic and requires more de-
cisive steps if alteration of the present situation is considered a
desired economic or ethical end.
What seems to be happening is that percentage-wise the
lowest third of the income earners has been losing ground quite
consistently since the turn of the century, and although the middle
third is slightly better than holding its own, the top third of the
income receivers is improving its relative position at the expense
of the lowest. From the general trend in corporate concentration
it can be seen that the economic levers which the highest of the
nooer third have to control have increased in size far more rapid-
5SLS2 polarization, and this too is an index to the control
of power .
There is a widespread belief, however, including among
many liberals, that there has been a "big change 1 ' in our -economy
Z a result of taxation , Part of the confusion results from an
association of increased real wages and consumption with an-
existent tendency towards income and economic equality. In other
words me actual quantity of goods consumed by lower income
gSs has LcreJed even while their percentages ^ve decreased
or remained constant. This has resulted >n f^f"?"' 11 ™*
increasing as part of the inherent expansion involved in any
modern technological order. Because more exists to be con-
Tmed, the possfble impact of income polarization has been at
best absorbed, at worst postponed.
What may very well exist is that the great margins of
income abundance at the highest levels allow -e" fc ralxza .ion of
purchasing power and savings among groups which have no real
Z:^lVessenn*l goods, constant orders ^r^ch are needed
to keep the economy from sliding into a depression Wealth thus
Lfted o a relatively small group physically limited in wha t th- ay
Sn consume can be said to be just as dangerous as if the actual
coLumption of lower income groups had not been increased by a
bS^Tpie to divide. While during periods of economic prosper -
SfJi L often associated with war demands, ^eral pros^rity
1 exist, the continuing inequality of income increases the pes
sible impact of the next depression.
So long as prosperity exists, however it seems unlikely
that the status quo will receive anything but a chorus of praise >
Thoi no content with a superficial mythology must give thought
loZ more basic and permanent forces shaping the economic
future of our society-to the reality, not the mythology.
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political and cultural life.
Written by university students, the Tracts are
aimed at the college level and are intended to supply
enough material to give the essentials of the sub-
ject and yet to serve as guides for further study.
S -L.I.D, Research Tracts will cover a wide variety
of subjects, both domestic and international , They
will include research essays, statistical studies,
translations and bibliographies. Some will provide
convenient reference guides to previously published
material; others will be original studies in fields
hitherto largely unexplored.
We invite all students who feel that they have
written or are planning a study which would fit into
the series to ?rrite to us and send their manuscripts
for our consideration* if you wish more details
about requirements, write to the Editorial Board, SLID
Research Tracts, 112 E. 19th St., N. Y. 3» N, Y. for
a descriptive memorandum.
niSTRlIVUTION OF IN* OMi IN THE UNITED STATES
By Gabriel Kolko
Th0UJJ |, lml< |, has been published on the increase in real income, very
li.tle is known aboui the distribution of this new wealth. This thoroughly
documented study shows v,ho gets what share of America's income, before
„„| after taxes, k shows the startling statistic that today's lower income
Broups receive a share o. the nation's income, smaller than that which they
obtained in 1900,
This study brings to light a factor in our economic life which can not
be neglected in formulating a clear picture of America's new prosperity.
THE WORKER PRIESTS: by Marie T. Oubalen
This is the first study to appear in this country of the worker-priest
experiment in France. Working entirely from original documents, the author
gives a step by step account of the conditions which led to the inception of
.his program and of the conflict which ended in its curtailment. The author
pictures the movement against the background of French social conditions
and past attempts at social action, "worker Priests" is a fascinating study
of the problems facing the churches in .heir economic activities.
STEWARD TRAINING IN C.I.O. UNIONS, by Mildred Bersh
This Tract focuses attention on two major problems in American life:
the question of adult education and leadership training and the Problem of
rank and file participation in union affairs.
The shop steward is the main link between the worker on the bench and
his union's policies. The problems faced in his training are those to be
met by all who are interes.ed in educating large numbers of people, especial
ly in the vital areas of teaching the wider implications of everyday work.
"A mature analysis. . -compares favorably with learned published
works". The N. \. World Telegram and Sun.
"I have rarely seen anything on adult or workers' education with as nruch meat
and little tat. . .can be used by every union.
M. Kogoff, Assistant Educational Director, ILGWU
For more about the S.L.l.D. Research Tracts, see the reverse side of
Distribution of income in the U. S.