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Half Full Or Half Empty?

The conservative campaign to convince Americans that the economy is better than they think it is continues with today's Wall Street Journal editorial trumpeting a new Treasury Department study which purports to find a high level of income mobility in the United States. Perhaps by coincidence, the Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project also released a less sunny study today on the same subject (key findings here).

It's interesting--sometimes even a bit funny--to note the ways in which very similar data can be spun differently. Here's the Journal: "One of the notable, and reassuring, findings is that nearly 58% of filers who were in the poorest income group in 1996 had moved into a higher income category by 2005." And here's the Pew survey discussing a similar (though trans-generational) result: "Children born to parents on the bottom rung of the ladder are highly likely (42 percent) to also be in the bottom rung in adulthood." Here's the Journal on wage growth: "Two of every three workers had a real income gain--which contradicts the Huckabee-Edwards-Lou Dobbs spin about stagnant incomes." And here's the Washington Post discussing the Pew survey (in a story noting that by any interpretation, African-Americans are more downwardly mobile than are whites): "Julia B. Isaacs, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who authored the three reports, noted that between 1974 and 2004, the median income for men in their 30s actually dropped 12 percent."

I don't have the expertise to figure out whose take on the numbers is more accurate, but in some respects the Journal's spin seems a little less convincing. Is it really that much of an achievement that during a decade of rapid economic growth, one-third of workers saw their real incomes fall? And the claim (and accompanying chart) showing that low-income earners have enjoyed higher wage gains, in percentage terms, than their wealthy counterparts sounds suspiciously like the Bush administration's much derided, true-but-highly-misleading claim that under his tax plan low-income folks got a bigger tax cut, as a percentage of their income, than the rich. The Treasury Department's numbers are at least reassuring in demonstrating that income mobility hasn't gotten much worse over the past decade, but won't do much to alleviate the concerns of the two-thirds of Americans who give the economy negative marks.

--Josh Patashnik