Labor's share of income has been declining, and inequality has been increasing. Will these trends continue?:
Labor's Declining Share of Income and Rising Inequality, by Margaret Jacobson and Filippo Occhino, FRB Cleveland: Labor income has declined as a share of total income earned in the United States. This decline was caused by several factors, including a change in the technology used to produce goods and services, increased globalization and trade openness, and developments in labor market institutions and policies.
One consequence of the labor share decline has raised concerns. Since labor income is more evenly distributed across U.S. households than capital income, the decline made total income less evenly distributed and more concentrated at the top of the distribution, and this contributed to increase income inequality. In this Commentary, we look at how the labor share decline has affected income inequality in the past, and we study the likely future path of the labor share and its implications for inequality.
The Decline in Labor’s Share of Income
Household income comes in two types: labor income, which includes wages, salaries, and other work-related compensation (such as pension and insurance benefits and incentive-based compensation), and capital income, which includes interest, dividends, and other realized investment returns (such as capital gains). During the last three decades, labor’s share of total income has declined in favor of capital income (see “Behind the Decline in Labor’s Share of Income” for more detail).
There are a number of ways to measure the share of income that accrues to labor. We look at three different data sources, and each provides broad evidence of the decline. According to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, labor’s share of gross national income fluctuated around 67 percent during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, but it has declined since then and now stands at 63.8 percent.1 (See figure 1.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ratio of compensation to output for the nonfarm business sector fluctuated around 65 percent until the early 1980s and has declined steadily since, from 63 percent during the 1980s and 1990s to 58.2 percent most recently. Finally, a 2011 study of income tax returns and demographic data by the CBO (CBO 2011) finds that labor’s share of income decreased from 75 percent in 1979 to 67 percent in 2007.
These three data sources measure slightly different labor share concepts, which is why their estimated levels are different. But they agree in indicating a significant drop of 3 to 8 percentage points in labor’s share of income since the early 1980s, with the trend accelerating during the 2000s.
Such a decline had implications for the distribution of incomes. Labor income is more evenly distributed across U.S. households than capital income, while a disproportionately large share of capital income accrues to the top income households. As the share that is more evenly distributed declined and the share that is more concentrated at the top rose, total income became less evenly distributed and more concentrated at the top. As a result, total income inequality rose.
Income inequality is the dispersion of annual incomes across households, relative to the average household income. Inequality affects a variety of other important economic variables, such as the composition of consumption and investment, tax revenue and government spending, government policies, economic mobility, human capital accumulation, and growth. Some economists—most prominently Raghuram Rajan in his book Fault Lines—have suggested that rising income inequality contributed to the debt accumulation and financial imbalances that led to the recent financial crisis. And of course income inequality is the focus of much attention as an indicator, albeit imperfect, of the inequality of lifetime income and welfare across households.
Several indicators suggest that inequality was declining up to the late 1970s, but it has since reversed course. It rose sharply during the 1980s and early 1990s and currently is at near record-high levels. ... [facts and figures on inequality, several measures presented] ...
This is a sizeable effect. More importantly, most of the effect occurred during the last decade, when the decline in the labor share was accelerating. Is this trend going to continue, and how will it affect income inequality going forward?
We use the model described in box 2 to learn about the future path of the labor share. The model decomposes the labor share into its long-run trend and its transitory components, and then it forecasts the future path of the overall labor share. We do all the calculations twice, once with the BEA data and once with the BLS data.
According to our model, the labor share trend has declined since 1980, with an accelerated drop in the 2000s, in both sets of data (figure 4). In the BEA data, the trend declined from levels as high as 69 percent before 1980 to 66.9 percent in 2000, to 64.9 percent today. In the BLS data, the trend declined from levels of approximately 64.5 percent before 1980 to 62.8 percent in 2000, to 59.8 percent today. According to these measures, the trend in the labor share declined 1.5 to 2 percentage points between 1980 and 2000, and then dropped an additional 2 to 3 percentage points, for a total of 4 to 4.5 percentage points.
Our model indicates that the labor share is currently 1 to 1.5 percentage points below its long-run trend level. Part of the decline in the labor share in the past five years was temporary, and it will be reversed as the recovery continues. Going forward, the labor share will pick up and converge to its long-run trend value. This will tend to decrease income inequality, lowering the Gini index by up to 0.5 (0.33 × 1.5) percentage points, as the decomposition in box 1 indicates.
Income inequality will not necessarily decrease though. As shown in box 1, inequality is affected not only by the relative shares of labor and capital income, but also by the concentrations of each. Concentration refers to the way each type of income is distributed across the households that earn it. In particular, concentration indexes measure how concentrated capital or labor income is at the top of the income distribution.
The future path of labor concentration is hard to predict, as it depends on the evolution of the returns to education and of the wage-skill premium. The concentration of capital income, however, is strongly procyclical, rising during recoveries (figure 5), and this suggests that capital income will become more concentrated at the top in the coming years of the recovery, helping to raise income inequality even further. This effect has dominated the dynamics of income inequality during the past two business cycles, so the future path of income inequality will likely be determined by the strength of the recovery and the associated pickup of the concentration of capital income.