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Personal Income Rises With Government Spending, But Not Really

June 28, 2010

Personal income information released this week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows total personal income increasing 0.4 percent, or $54 billion, from April to May 2010. Year over year, personal income is up 1.6 percent, or $191 billion. In spite of recent growth, total personal income is still down $24.4 billion, or 0.2 percent, from the peak reached during May of 2008.

In short, personal income has gone nowhere over the last two years as it plummeted $479 billion, or 3.9 percent, from May 2008′s peak to March 2009′s nadir. It has generally increased each month since.

Now that personal income has nearly recovered to where it was during the peak time, it is important to look at where the income has come from.

Job creation has been extremely weak since 2008. More than 7 million jobs have been lost, and as new high school and college grads have entered the work force, there simply haven’t been enough jobs to provide for growth in the work force. Hence, unemployment hovers near 10 percent, and job creation in the private sector is essentially zero.

So, how is it that income growth has recovered? The answer lies in what is included in the income numbers. Total personal income statistics include wages earned, whether from public-sector or private-sector jobs, and will also include wages from government-funded stimulus jobs such as highway construction and other similar projects.

But more important for our analysis here is the fact that personal income totals also include “personal current transfer receipts” which include “benefits received by persons for which no current services are performed.” Such benefits show up as personal income in the form of Medicare, food stamps, unemployment compensation, public assistance and a variety of other forms of income.

While personal income peaked in 2008, then crashed and slowly recovered, income in the form of transfer receipts have only increased. At the same time that personal income fell 0.2 percent from May 2008 to May 2010, personal current transfer receipts increased 12.2 percent. During those two years, as personal income saw a net decrease of 24.4 billion, transfer receipts increased 244.3 billion.

Indeed, a look at the last ten years shows that transfer receipts increased far more, both in absolute terms and in percentage increases, during the last two years than during any previous economic downturn dating back at least to 1959. (Although, there are almost certainly would have been very large increases in transfer receipts had they been measured during the New Deal.)

Today, the Dow rallied on news that personal income had grown faster than spending and that households were beginning to save more. This would be excellent news if this income had been produced by increases in wealth and income in the private sector, but unfortunately, increased personal income, while not totally due to public sector spending, has been largely buoyed by public sector spending, and has been a very significant portion of the growth in income that is now being trumpeted as proof that the recovery is taking hold.

However, as long as income growth is largely dependent on public-sector spending, growth is just a matter of income being redistributed from net tax payers to tax receivers, which is largely why personal income continues to improve in spite of only very small gains in private-sector employment. Ultimately, however, economic “growth” that is driven by mere transfer payments, cannot be growth founded any any true creation of wealth.

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