Janet Yellen at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality, FRB Boston, Boston:
Perspectives on Inequality and Opportunity from the Survey of Consumer Finances, by Janet Yellen, Chair, FRB: The distribution of income and wealth in the United States has been widening more or less steadily for several decades, to a greater extent than in most advanced countries.1 This trend paused during the Great Recession because of larger wealth losses for those at the top of the distribution and because increased safety-net spending helped offset some income losses for those below the top. But widening inequality resumed in the recovery, as the stock market rebounded, wage growth and the healing of the labor market have been slow, and the increase in home prices has not fully restored the housing wealth lost by the large majority of households for which it is their primary asset.
The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then.2 It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.
Some degree of inequality in income and wealth, of course, would occur even with completely equal opportunity because variations in effort, skill, and luck will produce variations in outcomes. Indeed, some variation in outcomes arguably contributes to economic growth because it creates incentives to work hard, get an education, save, invest, and undertake risk. However, to the extent that opportunity itself is enhanced by access to economic resources, inequality of outcomes can exacerbate inequality of opportunity, thereby perpetuating a trend of increasing inequality. Such a link is suggested by the "Great Gatsby Curve," the finding that, among advanced economies, greater income inequality is associated with diminished intergenerational mobility.3 In such circumstances, society faces difficult questions of how best to fairly and justly promote equal opportunity. My purpose today is not to provide answers to these contentious questions, but rather to provide a factual basis for further discussion. I am pleased that this conference will focus on equality of economic opportunity and on ways to better promote it.
In my remarks, I will review trends in income and wealth inequality over the past several decades, then identify and discuss four sources of economic opportunity in America--think of them as "building blocks" for the gains in income and wealth that most Americans hope are within reach of those who strive for them. The first two are widely recognized as important sources of opportunity: resources available for children and affordable higher education. The second two may come as more of a surprise: business ownership and inheritances. Like most sources of wealth, family ownership of businesses and inheritances are concentrated among households at the top of the distribution. But both of these are less concentrated and more broadly distributed than other forms of wealth, and there is some basis for thinking that they may also play a role in providing economic opportunities to a considerable number of families below the top.
In focusing on these four building blocks, I do not mean to suggest that they account for all economic opportunity, but I do believe they are all significant sources of opportunity for individuals and their families to improve their economic circumstances. ...[continue]...
See also Neil Irwin, "What Janet Yellen Said, and Didn’t Say, About Inequality," who says:
If there was any doubt that Janet Yellen would be a different type of Federal Reserve chair, her speech Friday in Boston removed it. ...
Ms. Yellen’s speech is a thorough airing of some of the latest research on how much inequality has widened in recent years and why. ...
It seems like Ms. Yellen offered this speech as a way to use her bully pulpit to cast public attention on an issue she cares about deeply, deliberately avoiding areas where inequality intersects with the policy areas under which she has direct control. And it is true that the future of inequality in the United States is surely shaped more by decisions on the levels of certain taxes and the size of the social welfare state more than by anything that the Fed does.
Perhaps in future appearances, Ms. Yellen will give us a sense not just of what is wrong with inequality, but what it might mean for the policies over which she has some control.