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Income Variability: Effects on U.S. Income Inequality and Tax Progressivity
Zodrow, George R.
Doctor of Philosophy
Income variability explains a significant fraction of the increase in annual income inequality. Chapter 1 considers the impact of variability on tax unit inequality. Using income tax return panel data, I estimate that between a tenth and a quarter of the increase in top one percent income shares between the early 1980s and 2000s was caused by variability. Increased income variability over this period resulted from mean-reverting fluctuations in the bottom quintile and top one percent. Variability in the top of the distribution seems partly driven by permanent income shifting in response to the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Chapter 2 examines the individual earnings distribution. Using Social Security Administration earnings panel data, I estimate that variability explains half of the increase in annual inequality in the bottom half of the distribution between 1973 and 1985. When workers with years of zero earnings are included, increasing earnings variability explains almost all of this group's increase in inequality. The increase in earnings variability appears to be explained by an increased fraction of working age men with years of zero earnings. Annual individual earnings inequality in the bottom half of the distribution not only increased with variability in the 1970s and 1980s, but also fell with variability in the 1950s and early 1960s. This suggests that the U-shaped trend in income inequality observed over these four decades was partly caused by first a fall and then a rise in earnings variability. Between 1985 and 2000, falling variability caused most of the decline in annual earnings inequality within the bottom half of the distribution. Within the top of the distribution, earnings inequality increased over this period because of changes in permanent earnings and not increasing variability. Income variability means that in a progressive tax system annual and lifetime federal tax rates can diverge. Chapter 3 shows that on an annual basis, those at the bottom of the distribution pay little or no federal income taxes, while on a lifetime basis they pay average tax rates about five percentage points higher. Income variability also means there is a trade-off between vertical and horizontal equity.
Economics; Labor economics