UC Berkeley economists launch tool to track real-time economic inequality, growth

Photo of Realtime Inequality website
Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff
With this tool, users can download data on inequality and wealth in the United States from 1976 to the present day.

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UC Berkeley economists recently launched Realtime Inequality, a web tool to track and visualize income and wealth inequality in the United States within hours of the data’s release.

Campus professor of economics Emmanuel Saez worked alongside associate professor of economics Gabriel Zucman and postdoctoral researcher Thomas Blanchet to build the site. Prior to Realtime Inequality, data on income and wealth inequality in the United States significantly lagged behind data on economic growth, according to Saez.

“For the first time ever, we can talk about inequality exactly at the same time we are talking about the latest growth numbers, putting inequality on equal footing to economic growth in the public debate,” Saez said in an email.

To provide these numbers in real time, Saez explained that he, Zucman and Blanchet distributed a “wide array” of national economic data by income group. The web tool’s corresponding paper also addresses the limitations of this data, suggesting private sector data could improve estimates in the future.

The web tool allows users to toggle the data by year, income group and frequency, among other options. Users can explore inequality and wealth from 1976 to the present day and download the subsequent data set.

One of the major findings of Realtime Inequality is economic recovery since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saez noted.

According to the web tool’s corresponding paper, all income groups recovered their pre-pandemic income level within 20 months. Recovery from the Great Recession, however, took four years for the average earner, and almost 12 years for the bottom 50% of earners.

On an individual level, the average national income per adult increased by 7.6% in 2021. Those in the bottom 50% saw a rise in income of 11.7%. However, the paper also noted the share of wealth owned by the 0.1% of earners increased as well, with wealth concentration at the end of 2021 at the highest level since World War II.

Saez emphasized that government intervention resulted in the relatively swift recovery and economic growth of the bottom 50% of earners during the pandemic, despite severe income losses in the beginning.

“The pandemic and its dramatic and very fast impact on the economy provides the perfect illustration why it is crucial to have timely and high frequency distributional data,” Saez said in the email. “It also shows how government support can dramatically affect the distribution of income.”

With the pandemic serving as a “key impetus” for the project, the paper adds that Realtime Inequality may help governments and banks implement more effective policies to address crises and recessions.

The researchers also hope users will have better tools to understand growth and inequality in real time.

“We hope it becomes the go-to place for people to learn how inequality is changing now,” Saez said in the email.

Riley Cooke is a business and economy reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rrileycooke.