Inequality Among “Consumers”

“Consumer” is a rotten word, a naked, vision-stunting bias parading as a basic, natural term of modern democratic life.  Whenever you hear yourself being called a “consumer,” you should reach for your gun.

Contrary to both mainstream dogma and received cultural-leftist/neo-Marcusian canon, access to commodities has never been anything like equal in the United States.  In fact, in this epoch of escalating income and wealth polarity, the newest statistics show that inequality among U.S. “consumers” is now at an all-time high.

Bradley Johnson of Advertising Age magazine’s “American Demographics” column reports:

Spending patterns vary from rich to poor.  The government’s latest Consumer Expenditure Survey shows spending by the top fifth of households (pretax income of $85,147-plus) rose 8.1% in 2005 vs. 2004.  That’s a bigger percentage boost than for any other income group.

The top fifth collected 50.4% of pretax income and accounted for a record 39% of consumer spending in 2005, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Those affluent households outspent the bottom three quintiles combined. Spending disparities have grown: The bottom fifth (pretax income below $17,579) did just 8.2% of 2005’s consumer spending, a record low.  (Advertising Age, January 15, 2007, p. 29)

As Johnson also notes, “[t]he affluent account for massive shares of spending in key categories.”  In the service of publicizing this reality and helping MR folks rethink “consumption,” I decided to calculate some of the key ratios.  The numbers signify the average spending of the richest 20 percent of U.S. households as a percentage of the averages among the poorest 20 percent and the middle 20 percent, respectively, in various “consumer” areas, all for the year 2005.

Housing: the richest quintile spends 3.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.1 times as much as the middle

New Vehicles: the richest quintile spends 19.2 times [not a typo!] as much as the poorest; 3.4 times as much as the middle

Dining Out: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Life Insurance, Social Security and Pensions: the richest quintile spends 28.8 times [not a typo] as much as the poorest; 3.9 times as much as the middle

Education: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as poorest; 5.7 times [not a typo] as much as the middle

Reading Material: the richest spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

Apparel: the richest quintile spends 4.3 times as much as the poorest; 2.4 times as much as the middle

Alcohol: the richest quintile spends 4.6 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Overall “Consumer” Spending: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

As you might guess, there is only one exception to this pattern: tobacco.  In that area, the richest quintile spent only 107% of what the poorest quintile spent, and only 74% of what the middle quintile spent.

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