In this essay, I suggest using an escalator rather than a pie as a metaphor for differences in income.

Overall, over 60 percent of families surveyed in 1975 made it to the top 40 percent in 1991. If the “distribution of income” were a pie, this would be mathematically impossible…

To solve the apparent mystery, think of an escalator. In 1975, many of the families surveyed were young families or new immigrants, and they were near the bottom of the escalator. After fifteen years on the escalator, many of them reached the top half of the escalator…

If you want to address the real challenges of poverty in this country, use the metaphor of an escalator. Target government intervention at people who are unable to get onto the escalator, due to impediments that may be medical, behavioral, or social. But don’t try to “fix” the escalator by carving it up like a pie.

UPDATE: My tabulation of the income data, which was first posted on Econlog, has been cited by Slate‘s Jack Shafer.

A different take on middle-class insecurity is given by Slate‘s Daniel Gross, who notes the consequences of the erosion of corporate benefits (what I call disintermediation). Gross concludes:

The more welfare capitalism declines, the more the federal government will have to fill the gap, and the more America will look like Europe.

For Discussion. What sorts of ideas for addressing poverty work with the escalator rather than in opposition to it?