We Won The War on Poverty Without Even Noticing It: Thanks To Cheap Imports From China
The abstract of the paper “Inequality and Prices: Does China Benefit the Poor in America?” by University of Chicago economists Christian Broda and John Romalis:
Over the past three decades there has been a spectacular rise in income inequality as measured by official statistics. In this paper we revisit the distributional consequences of increased imports from China by looking at the compositional differences in the basket of goods consumed by the poor and the rich in America. Using household data on non-durable consumption between 1994 and 2005 we document that much of the rise of income inequality has been offset by a relative decline in the price index of the poor. By relaxing the standard assumptions underlying the representative agent framework we find that inflation for households in the lowest tenth percentile of income has been 6 percentage points smaller than inflation for the upper tenth percentile over this period.
The lower inflation at low income levels can be explained by three factors: 1) The poor consume a higher share of non-durable goods —whose prices have fallen relative to services over this period; 2) the prices of the set of non-durable goods consumed by the poor has fallen relative to that of the rich; and 3) a higher proportion of the new goods are purchased by the poor. We examine the role played by Chinese exports in explaining the lower inflation of the poor. Since Chinese exports are concentrated in low-quality non-durable products that are heavily purchased by poorer Americans, we find that about one third of the relative price drops faced by the poor are associated with rising Chinese imports.
From the article "How China Helps America’s Poor" at The American:
In their newest study, Broda and Romalis contend that inequality has actually grown very little over the last decade. According to their research, the perceived rise in inequality—accepted as gospel by many economists and political figures—comes down to a simple measurement error, namely, focusing only on income, rather than on the prices of goods that particular groups consume.
“We are underestimating the gains from trade,” Broda says. “The current statistical interpretation ignores the fact that a poor household today can access goods that, in the 1960s, they could not—microwaves, DVDs—and, more importantly, that the prices of the staples that lower-income households consume have also gone down dramatically.”
Indeed, he claims that lower-income Americans, who tend to spend more on certain goods, have made impressive strides over the past decade, thanks largely to U.S. trade with China.
Broda and Romalis found that in the sectors where Chinese imports have increased the most (especially nondurable goods such as canned food and clothing), prices have fallen dramatically. They estimate that about one-third of the price decline for the poor is directly associated with rising imports from China. “In the sectors where there is no Chinese presence,” Broda says, “inflation has been more than 20 percent.”
“In the ’60s, all the talk was about trying to win the war against poverty,” he adds. “The bottom line with our study is that we may have won the war against poverty without even noticing it. Here we have Congress debating why the poor in America haven’t been able to grasp the great economic growth we’ve seen in the last 30 years. ‘It’s been only concentrated in the top 1%,’ they say. And, absolutely, that segment has grown a lot. But that doesn’t mean that the poor haven’t been able to access part of that progress.”