Clinton’s Record on Inequality

During the lattter Bush years, it was pretty common to view its economic record as a paler version of Reagan’s and Bush 41’s with some growth shoehorned between recessions and the fruits of growth heavily concentrated at the higher ends. These years were typically contrasted with the Clinton administration’s, where real median income gains were made for the first time in decades, and the economy grew quickly with little interruption.

Nowadays it is more common to view the Clinton years as a smaller blip in a larger pattern, and talk of regular folks not really making gains since the 1970s.

Knowing Bill Clinton’s sensitivity to such perspectives, I am not surprised he took some time in his remarks at Georgetown earlier this week to point out the difference between the distributional nature of the economy during his administration, as opposed to his predecessors and successor.

In his mixed review of Clinton’s record at MSNBC, Tim Noah credits the Clinton administration for presiding over a unique period of income gains for working Americans:

Under Clinton, job growth was about 30 million – the most since the 1970s. The poorest quintile gained 24%, which was slightly more than the richest quintile gained under Reagan. And under Clinton the richest quintile gained 20% – slightly less than what the bottom quintile gained. Meanwhile, median income increased 17% – the most rapid increase since the 1960s. Under George W. Bush, median income would fall again – substantially more for the bottom quintile than the top quintile.

But, notes Noah, while “a rising tide” did indeed “lift all boats” during the Clinton years, the inequality trend that did not stop was the concentration of wealth at the very top.

It is this “upper-tail” inequality that has grown fastest during the past two decades. And while income share for the 1% started growing in the late 1970s, it grew almost as fast under Clinton as it did under Reagan. During Reagan’s two terms, the 1%’s share of the nation’s income grew by half, from 10% to 15%. Under George H.W. Bush, the 1%’s income share stayed about the same. Under Clinton’s two terms, it grew by about one-third, to 21%.

So the fairest thing to say is that Clinton succeeded in cutting all Americans into the benefits of growth–and without recessions–but the very rich continued their gradual but steady conquest of an ever-greater share of wealth. His record looks even better when compared to Obama’s, though as Noah notes, the Affordable Care Act could wind up being a greater “equalizer” than we currently imagine.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.