The shocking truth behind the saddest chart in Congress

May 9, 2013

There are great charts, and then there are sad charts. On Tuesday, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) unveiled this monstrosity on the House floor:

Credit to Politico's Seung Min Kim for the catch. And here's Pocan's excuse for his sad chart:

Well, fair enough! But what is this chart, anyway? We were curious. And as it turns out, Pocan was simply trying to find a way to make the staggering growth in U.S. income inequality since the 1970s more comprehensible. Here are his comments, via C-SPAN:

The wealthiest Americans only are getting richer. According to tax expert David Cay Johnston, from 2009 to 2011, close to 150 percent of the increased income in this country went to the top 10 percent of earners. Why? Because incomes fell for 90 percent of Americans. ...

Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, this trend of increased income inequality can be traced back to more than just the two years following the recession. You have to go back to 1966 to find the last time that average adjusted gross income in this country was lower than it was in 2011.

In between this time, 45 years, the bottom 90 percent of Americans saw income increase by an average of $59. The top 10 percent from 1966 to 2011, their income increased by an average of $116,000. And what about the top 1 percent? Their income increased by an average of $629,000. And the top 1 percent of 1 percent, the very most wealthy, they saw their income rise $18.4 million on average.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend. But Mr. Johnston found a way. If you represent these increases on a line chart, and one inch is equivalent to $59... The top 10 percent would go to 163 feet. The top 1 percent's line would go to 844 feet. And the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent would go for five miles.

One inch of increase. Five miles of increase.

That's a reasonable enough thing to try to capture in chart form. And, to his credit, Pocan stayed pretty close to David Cay Johnston's original. (Johnston's full article is worth reading, and, for those curious, the Tax Foundation raised a few objections to the piece.)

Here's another, somewhat cleaner way to represent the growth in income inequality over the past three decades, courtesy of Frank Lysy:

And here's an additional barrage of colorful charts on income inequality from Dylan Matthews. The more the merrier.

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Neil Irwin · May 9, 2013