Income and wealth disparity growing over a period of decades: When will it stop?

I previously posted here about a great Washington Post piece on income disparity in America.

Recently, there have been a couple of Wall Street Journal blog posts by Robert Frank dealing with income and wealth disparity in relatively recent U.S. history: The Wealthiest 5% Grabbed Most of the America’s Gains and Are the Rich Grabbing More of the Income Pie?

The second of those posts includes this fascinating graph of the percent of total income that goes to the top 1% of earners:

As you can see, the percentage of income going to the top 1% was high before the Great Depression but then hovered at about 10% for many years, before the long-term trend upward in recent decades. The precipitous fall of 2008 and 2009 is directly related to the financial crisis — hedge fund managers and other top earners saw steep declines in some cases. I’d look for that line to bounce back up for both 2010 and 2011, since the stock market has recovered significantly (although it’s still well below the 2007 peak).

Frank’s post about wealth disparity includes this graph:

Note that the data is for increases in wealth, not for the overall amount of wealth. Still, it’s a striking graphic that shows clearly where gains in overall wealth are going.

Frank writes:

According to the Federal Reserve’s Surveys of Consumer Finance, the top 5% controlled 60% of the nation’s wealth as of 2007 (the latest period available), up from 54.2% in 1987. So their total share of wealth only went up by 6 percentage points , or a little over 10% in relative terms.

The share of the bottom 50% declined from 3% to 2.5%.

That’s right: 50% of Americans hold just 2.5% of our wealth, while the top 5% have 60%. That last number probably slipped a little with the collapse in stocks, but is likely going to continue on the long-term upward trend.

Again, from Frank:

This is dismal news, of course, and highlights once again the rise in inequality and the increasingly top-heavy nature of the global economy. It’s also hard to label it as a “Republican” phenomena, since the time frame includes Clinton administrations.

As long as we have such a “top-heavy” economy, we’re going to be fighting uphill battles in terms of education, quality of life, neighborhood revitalization, infrastructure spending, and on and on and on. Frank uses the word “global” here, but there are allies of ours who do not have such radical disparities.

Looking at this hard data, it seems very difficult to argue that ordinary workers’ wages are too high or that we need lower taxes on wealthier Americans. A consumer-based economy seems like it will be facing a tough future if so many Americans have so little of the nation’s wealth to spend, save, and invest.