The Income Gap, Explained With Candy Corn

The numbers detailing the income gap between rich and poor can be difficult to grasp, but NPR's Andrea Seabrook and Robert Smith can explain.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This week, the Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that the gap between wealthy and poor Americans has become much wider than it once was. We'll have a story on how changes in the tax code may have contributed to this situation, and we'll look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. But first, we turn to NPR's Andrea Seabrook and Robert Smith for a seasonably appropriate analysis of how the income gap has changed over the last 30 years.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: The CBO report has great graphs and charts to illustrate just how much more the wealthy have added to their incomes over the past 30 years. Sadly, graphs and charts make terrible radio. So I picked up the nerd hotline and got one of the Planet Money team - NPR's Robert Smith. He raided his daughter's stash of Halloween candy corn, and came up with a kind of audio graphic so we can hear how people's incomes have changed. And we start with the poor.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Each little candy corn is worth about a thousand dollars of annual income. So let's look back 30 years ago, say. In 1979, you would have made this many candy corn, 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY CORN BEING POURED INTO CONTAINER )

SEABROOK: OK.

SMITH: Thirty years later, you're doing a little bit better in society. You are doing about two candy corns better.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY CORN BEING POURED INTO CONTAINER )

SEABROOK: Two candy corns better.

SMITH: You're making about $2,000 more a year.

SEABROOK: OK. That's an 18 percent increase, according to the CBO numbers here, yes?

SMITH: Absolutely.

SEABROOK: OK. Now, talk about the middle.

SMITH: Sure: 1979, if your family made $30,000 a year, you were well in the middle. So here's what 30 candy corns sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY CORN BEING POURED INTO CONTAINER )

SMITH: You know, not bad, pretty good for the middle class. Over the last 30 years, you would make about 12 candy corns more. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY CORN BEING POURED INTO CONTAINER )

SEABROOK: OK. That's an increase of about 40 percent.

SMITH: Everyone's doing a little bit better over the last 30 years, but the increases are fairly modest all the way up until you get to the rich.

SEABROOK: OK.

SMITH: Are you ready for the rich?

SEABROOK: I'm ready for the rich.

SMITH: Now, everyone talks about the top 1 percent, and so that's what we're going to go to. The whole family would have made - let's say around $200,000 a year. Here's 200 candy corn.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDY CORN BEING POURED INTO CONTAINER )

SEABROOK: OK, that's a good haul. How much are they making now? What's the difference?

SMITH: Well, this is the real news of the study.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: Their annual income, their annual candy corn take-home haul - let me start to pour this - 550 more candy corns a year, and they're spilling all over the table here. But this - any kid in America would love to have this many candy corns.

SEABROOK: According to the numbers that I have here, that's an increase of 275 percent.

SMITH: And when they talk about income inequality in America, this is what they're talking about.

SEABROOK: To go over the numbers once again, the lower-income people in America gained about 18 percent.

SMITH: Two candy corns.

SEABROOK: The middle income gained about 40 percent.

SMITH: Twelve candy corns.

SEABROOK: And the highest gained an average of 275 percent.

SMITH: Five hundred and 50 candy corns, and they're going to need that money for the dentist.

SEABROOK: Happy Halloween, Robert.

SMITH: Happy Halloween, Andrea.

SIMON: NPR's congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook, and from our Planet Money team, NPR's Robert Smith.

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