As congressional Democrats and Republicans sit down for high-stakes budget talks, the rhetoric has flown furiously to familiar territory. Republicans want cuts and reforms to entitlement programs, while Democrats insist that revenue must be on the table, too.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., made the case for the latter in an interview on MSNBC on Nov. 12, 2013.
"This country has never been richer, if you look at per capita GDP," she said. "It doesn't feel that way when you hear about austerity and we have to cut this and we have to cut that. It's because the income inequality is greater than it has ever been."
We wondered if she was correct.
The numbers don’t lie
Schakowsky’s office sent us figures from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to those numbers, the GDP per capita, when adjusted for inflation, hit $45,633 this year, which surpassed the previous high of $45,360, which was set in 2007 prior to the most recent recession. It was barely higher, but higher all the same. (The government defines the GDP — gross domestic product — as the market value of the goods and services produced by labor and property within the country.)
We were curious how the data was calculated, so we contacted Mathew Shane, an economist with the USDA who put the figures together. He told us that the 2013 number was partially based on a projection, since the year is not yet completed. But if that projection is borne out, he said, then GDP per capita will be at its highest level ever.
"It’s close," Shane said. "We hit a peak in 2007 when the crisis hit. There’s been no income growth in real terms since 2007. The difference between (2007 and 2013) is a very modest difference. We, essentially, finally regained what we were in 2007. I guess we could say we’re projected to be slightly better than we were in 2007."
If "I guess" doesn’t sound definitive enough, we also sought out another source: the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the government agency that calculates the nation’s GDP. The bureau’s analysis also backs up Shane’s findings.
By the second quarter of this year, GDP per capita had surpassed 2007 levels. "The third quarter of 2013 is the highest on record," said Thomas Dail, spokesman for the bureau.
Finally, GDP per capita, even when adjusted for inflation, has gone up and up for more than a century. In other words, Schakowsky could have said what she said at virtually any given point during the last 150 years and had a pretty good chance of being right.
Schakowsky said, "This country has never been richer, if you look at per capita GDP." We found that GDP has trended upward throughout much of America's history and the current level is only slightly higher than pre-recession levels. But the numbers show Schakowsky is right. We rate her comments True.