14.1 Drawing the Poverty Line
Wages are influenced by supply and demand in labor markets, which can lead to very low incomes for some people and very high incomes for others. Poverty and income inequality are not the same thing. Poverty applies to the condition of people who cannot afford the necessities of life. Income inequality refers to the disparity between those with higher and lower incomes. The poverty rate is what percentage of the population lives below the poverty line, which is determined by the amount of income that it takes to purchase the necessities of life. Choosing a poverty line will always be somewhat controversial.
14.2 The Poverty Trap
A poverty trap occurs when government-support payments for the poor decline as the poor earn more income. As a result, the poor do not end up with much more income when they work, because the loss of government support largely or completely offsets any income that is earned by working. The bite of the poverty trap can be reduced by phasing out government benefits more slowly, as well as by imposing requirements for work as a condition of receiving benefits and a time limit on benefits.
14.3 The Safety Net
The group of government programs that assist the poor are called the safety net. In the United States, prominent safety net programs include Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the earned income tax credit (EITC), Medicaid, and the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
14.4 Income Inequality: Measurement and Causes
Measuring inequality involves making comparisons across the entire distribution of income, not just the poor. One way of doing this is to divide the population into groups, like quintiles, and then calculate what share of income is received by each group. An alternative approach is to draw Lorenz curves, which compare the cumulative income actually received to a perfectly equal distribution of income. Income inequality in the United States increased substantially from the late 1970s and early 1980s into the 2000s. The two most common explanations cited by economists are changes in the structure of households that have led to more two-earner couples and single-parent families, and the effect of new information and communications technology on wages.
14.5 Government Policies to Reduce Income Inequality
Policies that can affect the level of economic inequality include redistribution between rich and poor, making it easier for people to climb the ladder of opportunity; and estate taxes, which are taxes on inheritances. Pushing too aggressively for economic equality can run the risk of decreasing economic incentives. However, a moderate push for economic equality can increase economic output, both through methods like improved education and by building a base of political support for market forces.