Does Inflation Affect Lower-Income People More than Higher-Income People?

There’s a consensus among economists that increases in unemployment during a recession typically are larger for lower-income people than for higher-income people. Lower-income people are more likely to hold jobs requiring fewer skills and firms typically expect that when they lay off less-skilled workers during a recession they will be able to higher them—or other workers with similar skills—back after the recession ends. Because higher income have skills that may be difficult to replace, firms are more reluctant to lay them off. 

For instance, in an earlier blog post (found here) we noted that during the period in 2020 when many restaurants were closed, the Cheesecake Factory continued to pay its 3,000 managers while it laid off most of its servers. That strategy made it easier for the restaurant chain to more easily expand its operations when the worst of government-ordered closures were over. More generally, Serdar Birinci and YiLi Chien of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that workers in the lowest 20 percent (or quintile) of earnings experienced an increased unemployment rate from 4.4 percent in January 2020 to 23.4 percent in April 2020, whereas workers in the highest quintile of earnings experienced an increase only from 1.1 percent in January to 4.8 percent in April.

If lower-income people are hit harder by unemployment, are they also hit harder by inflation? Answering that question is difficult because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t routinely release data on inflation in the prices of goods and services purchased by households at different income levels.  The main measure of consumer price inflation compiled by the BLS represents changes in the consumer price index (CPI). The CPI is an index of the prices in a market basket of goods and services purchased by households living in urban areas. The information on consumer purchases comes from interviews the BLS conducts every three months with a sample of consumers and from weekly diaries in which a sample of consumers report their purchases. (We discuss the CPI in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9,  Section 9.4 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4.)

The BLS releases three measures of the CPI, the two most widely used of which are the CPI-U for all urban consumers and CPI-W for urban wage earners. CPI-W covers the subset of households that receive at least half their household income from clerical or wage occupations and who have at least one wage earner who worked for 37 weeks or more during the previous year. CPI-U represents about 93 percent of the U.S. population and CPI-W represents about 29 percent of the U.S. population. Finally, in 1988 Congress instructed the BLS to compile a consumer price index reflecting the purchases of people aged 62 and older. This version of the CPI is labeled R-CPI-E; the R indicates that it is a research series and the E indicates that it is intended to measure the prices of goods and services purchased by elderly people. Because the sample used to calculate the R-CPI-E is relatively small and because of some other difficulties that may reduce the accuracy of the index, the BLS considers it a series best suited for research and does not include the data in its monthly “Consumer Price Index” publication. In any event, as the following figure shows, inflation, measured as the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year, has been very similar for all three measures of the CPI.

Because the market baskets of goods and services consumed by a mix of high and low-income households is included in all three versions of the CPI, none of the versions provides a way to measure the possibly different effects of inflation on low-income and on high-income households. A study by Josh Klick and Anya Stockburger of the BLS attempts to fill this gap by constructing measures of the CPI for low-income and for high-income households. They define low-income households as those in the bottom 25 percent (quartile) of the income distribution and high-income households as those in the top quartile of the income distribution. During the time period of their analysis—December 2003 to December 2018—the bottom quartile had average annual incomes of $12,705 and the top quartile had average annual incomes of $155,045.

The BLS researchers constructed market baskets for the two groups. The expenditure weights—representing the mix of products purchased—don’t differ too strikingly between lower-income and higher-income households, as the figure below shows. The largest differences are housing, with low-income households having a market basket weight of 45.2 percent and high-income households having a market basket weight of 39.5 percent, and transportation, with low-income households having a market basket weight of 13.0 percent and high-income households having a market basket weight of 17.2 percent.

The following table shows the inflation rate as measured by changes in different versions of the CPI over the period from December 2003 to December 2018. During this period, the CPI-U (the version of the CPI that is most frequently quoted in news stories) increased at an annual rate of 2.1 percent, which was the same rate as the CPI-W. The R-CPI-E increased at a slightly faster rate of 2.2 percent. Lower-income households experienced the highest inflation rate at 2.3 percent and higher-income households experienced the lowest inflation rate of 2.0 percent.  

CPI-UCPI-WR-CPI-ECPI for lowest income quartileCPI for highest income quartile
2.1%2.2%2.1%2.3%2.0%

The differences in inflation rates across groups were fairly small. Can we conclude that the same was true during the recent period of much higher inflation rates? We won’t know with certainty until the BLS extends its analysis to cover at least the years 2021 and 2022. But we can make a couple of relevant observations. First, for many people the most important aspect of inflation is whether prices are increasing faster of slower than their wages. In other words, people are interested in what is happening to their real wage. (We discuss calculating real wage rates in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.5 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.5.)

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta compiles data on wage growth, including wage growth by workers in different income quartiles. The following figure shows that workers in the top quartile have experienced more rapid wage growth in the months since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic than have workers in the other quartiles. This gap continues a trend that began in 2015. The bottom quartile has experienced the slowest rate of income growth. (Note that the researchers at the Atlanta Fed compute wage growth as a 12-month moving average rather than as the percentage from the same month in the previous year, as we have been doing when calculating inflation using the CPI.) For example, in January 2022, calculated this way, average wage growth in the top quartile was 5.8 percent as opposed to 2.9 percent in the bottom quartile.

As with any average, there is some variation in the experiences of different individuals. Although, as a group, lower-income workers have seen wage growth that lags behind other workers, in some industries that employ many lower-income people, wage growth has been strong. For instance, as measured by average hourly earnings, wages for all workers in the private sector increased by 5.7 percent between January 2021 and 2022. But average hourly earnings in the leisure and hospitality industry—which employs many lower-income workers—increased by 13.0 percent.

Overall, it seems likely that the real wages of higher-income workers have been increasing while the real wages of lower-income workers have been decreasing, although the experience of individual workers in both groups may be very different than the average experience. 

Sources: Josh Klick and Anya Stockburger, “Experimental CPI for Lower and Higher Income Households Serdar,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Working Paper 537, March 8, 2021; Birinci and YiLi Chien, “An Uneven Crisis for Lower-Income Households,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Annual Report 2020, April 7, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, “Wage Growth Tracker,” https://www.atlantafed.org/chcs/wage-growth-tracker.

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