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RESEARCH How did the distribution of income growth change alongside the hot pre-pandemic labor market and recent fiscal stimulus?

The economic expansion prior to COVID-19 was the longest in U.S. history.1 Headline unemployment fell from as high as 10 percent in the Great Recession to 3.5 percent in February 2020. How did Americans across the income spectrum fare over the disparate stages of the cycle? Quantitative answers to this question can provide a view into the possible redistributive benefits of a “high pressure” economy, with a tight labor market and low interest rates.2 The Federal Reserve plays a key role managing cyclical fluctuations in employment, by setting interest rate policy and purchasing financial assets. Fiscal levers—like the 2018 tax cuts and Economic Impact Payments during COVID-19—also have broad effects on consumer demand that ultimately supports the job market.

In this insight, we document heterogeneity in the evolution of income growth since the Great Recession. Using administrative data on the incomes of over 7 million households, we estimate the extent to which lower-income households began to catch-up with higher earners in two distinct phases: first, as the labor market tightened; and second, as policies put in place during the pandemic supported incomes at the lower end of the distribution.

Depicted in Figure 1, households in lower income areas in our data have experienced a greater pickup in growth as the economic growth cycle extended. We estimate (annualized) 2-year real income growth rates.3 This window focuses on lasting changes experienced by families—smoothing over idiosyncratic shocks—and obviates adjustments for year-on-year measures comparing 2021 to the sharp volatility in 2020. Households that we group into the lowest quartile of income—based on average incomes in a household’s ZIP code4 —rose from 2.0 percent early in the recovery to 5.2 percent just prior to the COVID-19 recession (see Figure 1).5 Meanwhile, the growth rates for the highest income quartile increased from 2.8 to 4.4 percent. A substantial portion of the relative gains for lower-income households occurred after the labor market surpassed Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) estimates of “full employment” in early 2017, as unemployment rates continued to decline and interest rates remained low.  Policymaker discussions have recognized that the lack of a pickup in inflation around that time highlights the degree of uncertainty around such “full employment” estimates.6

Figure 1: Lower-income households experienced the largest boost in growth as the labor market tightened. Policies undertaken during COVID-19 accelerate the trend. 

COVID-19 brought unprecedented and swift job losses that disproportionately impacted lower-wage workers in in-person sectors, such as restaurants, travel and hospitality, and retail. And yet, due to strong and progressively targeted fiscal supports, income growth for lower-income households has increased sharply since the onset of the pandemic, building on already healthy real growth rates.7 In particular, the portion of income growth in 2020 and 2021 attributable to Unemployment Insurance (UI), given boosts in the amount and coverage of UI benefits, as well as the three rounds of Economic Impact Payments (EIP) has been notable. Annualized growth for the 2-year period ending May 2021 would have decelerated by about 1 percentage point, but instead it accelerated nearly 2 percentage points for the bottom income quartile. This estimate almost certainly represents a lower bound on the contribution of fiscal supports during COVID, due to incomplete identification of UI and EIP payments in our data, as well as other national and local fiscal support expansions (e.g. SNAP, state-based stimulus payments, and rental assistance) not included in our analysis. The distribution of the income boost since early 2020 shows the role of targeting relief to families most in need.

Figure 2: Lower-income households experienced outsized inflows during COVID-19, extending gains from the tight pre-pandemic labor market.

The discussion above focuses on median outcomes for growth. Typical outcomes are important, but the whole distribution matters when considering the welfare implications of business cycles. The “left-tail” of outcomes merit particular attention. Figure 3 shows the share of households in our data experiencing income declines exceeding 10 percent over a two-year window. The solid lines depict the share using total income and the dotted lines since COVID-19 show dynamics after stripping out two important government cash transfer programs: Unemployment Insurance and Economic Impact Payments. The metric represents an estimate of the portion of the population facing a prolonged drop in income and the role of government transfers in cushioning shocks. This trend is a “left-tail” parallel to the figures for median income growth shown in Figures 1 and 2.

In 2013, across the income spectrum, roughly 17 percent of families had experienced a 10 percent or greater decline in income over the prior two years.8 As labor market conditions improved from 2013 up to February 2020, the share of households experiencing a substantial, long-lasting decline in income fell the most for families in the first income quartile, with the share falling to 13 percent, a drop of more than 20 percent. In other words, the first income quartile saw the largest decline in downside income shocks benefit during the expansion.

The rise in this measure of financial distress during COVID-19—when excluding government transfers in the form of UI and EIP—shows the clear role government supports played in mitigating income losses and maintaining the income growth momentum illustrated in Figures 1 and 2. Indeed, when including these transfers, the share of households experiencing -10 percent or worse income outcomes actually fell modestly for the first income quartile, instead of rising by 25 percent.

Figure 3. The number of households experiencing substantial downward income changes fell most for low-income households during the expansion.

Implications

The variation in US households’ income growth depicted in this insight demonstrates the potential for both monetary and fiscal policy to influence the trajectory of income inequality. Fiscal policy can have a rapid and direct effect. Since March 2020, the government has injected trillions of dollars to stem the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis in the form of UI supplements and direct payments to households. Many of these benefits were fixed dollar amounts, which progressively boosted income more in percentage terms for workers with low incomes. Damaging effects of prior recessions have disproportionately landed on lower-income households and people of color.9 By contrast, the large policy response to COVID-19 provided financial buoyancy that kept families with lower incomes afloat during a challenging time.

Meanwhile, policymakers at the Federal Reserve have increasingly emphasized inclusive, broad-based growth as a goal in setting monetary policy. Operationalizing this objective, the central bank has indicated its willingness to moderately overshoot its 2 percent inflation objective in pursuing maximum employment.10 Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard noted in a speech last year, “sustained disparities can hold back the recovery and lead to worse overall outcomes.” The Fed is not alone; other central banks have been paying closer attention to inequality, as indicated by the frequency by which global policymakers reference the issues. The influence of monetary policy on the distribution of income growth can be powerful—albeit indirect—as it can set in motion pervasive changes across the aggregate labor market.

With more than $5 trillion in COVID-related stimulus, a recently Senate-passed $1 trillion infrastructure package, and $3.5 trillion in proposed budget reconciliation, inflation concerns are running high. The possible redistributive benefits of this spending should be an important consideration for policymakers as they weigh these policy measures. As we document here, low-income families experienced the most income growth and greatest mitigation of downside risk during the expansion period and with the benefit of COVID-related stimulus, stemming the tide of income inequality.




Authors

Fiona Greig

Co-President

Chris Wheat

Co-President

George Eckerd

Financial Markets Research Lead

Melissa O’Brien

Financial Markets Senior Research Associate

Shantanu Banerjee

Financial Markets Research Associate