Income inequality worst since 1920s, according to IRS data
Half of US senators are millionaires
The superrich are gobbling up an ever larger piece of the economic pie, and the poor are seeing their share of earnings shrink: new IRS data shows the top 1 percent of Americans are claiming a larger share of national income than at any time since before the Great Depression.
The top percentile of wealthy Americans earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005, up from 19 percent in 2004, according to new Internal Revenue Service data published in the Wall Street Journal Friday.
Americans in the bottom 50 percent of wage earners saw their share of income shrink to 12.8 percent in 2005, down from 13.4 percent.
"Scholars attribute rising inequality to several factors," the Journal reports, "including technological change that favors those with more skills, and globalization and advances in communications that enlarge the rewards available to 'superstar' performers whether in business, sports or entertainment."
The data could cause problems to President Bush and Republican presidential candidates, who have played up low unemployment and a strong economy since 2003, crediting Bush's tax cuts for contributing to both. In an interview with the Journal, Bush downplayed the significance of the income gap, saying more education is the answer to narrowing it.
"First of all, our society has had income inequality for a long time. Secondly, skills gaps yield income gaps," Bush told the Journal. "And what needs to be done about the inequality of income is to make sure people have got good education, starting with young kids. That's why No Child Left Behind is such an important component of making sure that America is competitive in the 21st century."
The Journal notes that many Americans fear the economy is entering a recession, and the IRS data show income for the median earner fell 2 percent between 2000 and 2005 to $30,881. Earnings for the top 1 percent grew to $364,657 -- a 3 percent uptick.
Scholarly research suggests that top earners did not have such a large share of total income since the 1920s, the Journal reported.
The Journal reports that a recent stock boom likely contributed to higher earnings among those in the top income bracket, with hedge fund managers and Wall Street attorneys seeing their incomes skyrocket in recent years.
Another prominent pool or wealthy Americans gathers regularly on Capitol Hill to write the nation's laws. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending and politicians' wealth, says more than a third of Congress members are millionaires, with at least half the Senate falling into the millionaires club.
Forbes reported that last year's incoming class of new Senators did "little to shake the Senate's image as a millionaires club," with half of the newly elected members having seven- eight- or nine-figure personal fortunes.
Freshman Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) is worth between $64 million and $236 million, and newly elected Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-MO) fortune is between $13 million and $29 million. R
Roll Call estimates Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) is the chamber's richest member with an estimated net worth of $750 million; another Democrat, Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, is among the chamber's richest with between $220 million and $234 million in personal assets.