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With a timely new foreword by Robert Frank, this groundbreaking book explores the very meaning of happiness and prosperity in America today. Although middle-income families don't earn much more than they did several decades ago, they are buying bigger cars, houses, and appliances. To pay for them, they spend more than they earn and carry record levels of debt. Robert Frank explains how increased concentrations of income and wealth at the top of the economic pyramid have set off "expenditure cascades" that raise the cost of achieving many basic goals for the middle class. Writing in lively prose for a general audience, Frank employs up-to-date economic data and examples drawn from everyday life to shed light on reigning models of consumer behavior. He also suggests reforms that could mitigate the costs of inequality. Falling Behind compels us to rethink how and why we live our economic lives the way we do.
Published: University of California Press on
ISBN: 9780520957435
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Praise for Robert Frank’s Falling Behind

I’ve been a skeptic. Bob Frank is persistent. He’s beginning to convince me.

Thomas C. Schelling, author of The Strategy of Conflict and 2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics

In this century, distributional concerns will top the policy agenda. This masterful essay will change how you think about them.

Paul Romer, Stanford University

The arguments here are powerful and multidisciplinary. The crux is explaining how rising economic inequality causes harm to the middle class. . . . This is a gem of a book.

Lee S. Friedman, Professor of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley

"In this lively, provocative book filled with memorable new examples, Bob Frank goes beyond his previous work (Luxury Fever, Winner-Take-All Society, and Choosing the Right Pond) and clarifies that ‘falling behind’ is a consequence not of envy but rather of the simple fact that a person’s evaluation of his own possessions ‘depends always and everywhere on context’—an unconscious comparison with his neighbor’s possessions or with his own previous possessions."

Laurence Seidman, Chaplin Tyler Professor of Economics, University of Delaware

Falling Behind


Edited by Lee Friedman

This series is intended to sustain the intellectual excitement that Aaron Wildavsky created for scholars of public policy everywhere. The ideas in each volume are initially presented and discussed at a public lecture and forum held at the University of California.


Your prolific pen has brought real politics to the study of budgeting, to the analysis of myriad public policies, and to the discovery of the values underlying the political cultures by which peoples live. You have improved every institution with which you have been associated, notably Berkeley’s Graduate School of Public Policy, which as Founding Dean you quickened with your restless innovative energy. Advocate of freedom, mentor to policy analysts everywhere. (Yale University, May 1993, from text granting the honorary degree of Doctor of Social Science)

Missing Persons: A Critique of Personhood in the Social Sciences, by Mary Douglas and Steven Ney

The Bridge over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics, by William Julius Wilson

The New Public Management: Improving Research and Policy Dialogue, by Michael Barzelay

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, by Robert H. Frank

Godly Republic: A Centrist Civic Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future, by John J. DiIulio, Jr.

Bounded Rationality and Politics, by Jonathan Bendor

Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Truly Disadvantaged, by Katherine S. Newman and Rourke L. O’Brien

Changing Inequality, by Rebecca M. Blank

Falling Behind

How Rising Inequality

Harms the Middle Class

Robert H. Frank



BerkeleyLos AngelesLondon

University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around die world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit www.ucpress.edu.

University of California Press

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

University of California Press, Ltd.

London, England

© 2007, 2013 by The Regents of the University of California

ISBN 978-0-520-28052-6

eISBN 9780520957435

The Library of Congress has cataloged an earlier edition of this book as follows:

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Frank, Robert H.

Falling behind : how rising inequality harms the middle class / Robert II. Frank


Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-520-25188-5 (cloth : alk. paper)

ISBN 978-0-520-25252-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Middle class—United States—Economic conditions.2. Income distribution—United States.3. Consumption (Economics)—United States.4. Equality—Economic aspects—United States.I. Tide.




Manufactured in the United States of America

22  21  20  19  18  17  16  15  14  13

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

In keeping with a commitment to support environmentally responsible and sustainable printing practices, UC Press has printed this book on Rolland Enviro100, a 100% post-consumer fiber paper that is FSC certified, deinked, processed chlorine-free, and manufactured with renewable biogas energy. It is acid-free and EcoLogo certified.


Preface to the 2013 Edition

Preface to the 2007 Edition

1. Introduction

2. Recent Changes in Income and Wealth Inequality

3. Inequality, Happiness, and Health

4. Envy or Context?

5. The Rising Cost of Adequate

6. Why Do We Care about Rank?

7. What Types of Consumption Are Most Sensitive to Context?

8. How Can Middle-Class Families Afford to Keep Up?

9. Smart for One, Dumb for All

10. Looking Ahead

11. Lessons for Public Policy

12. Reflections





Falling Behind was first published in 2007. Its central thesis is that the rapid growth in income and wealth inequality that began in the early 1970s caused substantial economic damage to middle-income families.

I was grateful for the invitation from University of California Press to reflect on the basic message of Falling Behind in the light of events since then. Did the financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession cast doubt on my thesis?

In a word, no. But it’s a fair question, since those events did upend the inequality trends at issue. Prior to the early 1970s, incomes had been growing at about the same rate for about three decades—slightly less than 3 percent annually—for families at all income levels. Between the early 1970s and 2007, however, almost all significant income gains in the United States were confined to the top quintile of the earnings distribution, and even those gains themselves were heavily concentrated among the top 1 percent.

The salaries of CEOs of large American corporations, for instance, were roughly forty times those of the average worker in 1980, but by 2000 the multiple had risen to more than five hundred.¹ The top 1 percent of U.S. earners garnered 8.9 percent of total income in 1976 but received 23.5 percent by 2007.²

The financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession of course produced significant hardship for almost everyone. But the greatest losses, in proportional terms, were actually to those at the top of the economic pyramid, because of the steep declines they experienced in their financial wealth holdings. Many have described stock ownership as highly diffuse in the United States, and that is true relative to many other countries, but stock ownership in the U.S. remains highly concentrated. In 2007, the top 1 percent owned more than 42 percent of the country’s total financial wealth.³ The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined by 54 percent between October 2007 and March 2009, a blow that the country’s wealthiest households experienced most heavily. People in the bottom quintile of the distribution also took a hit. But although they saw their pretax earnings fall more than 30 percent between 2007 and 2010, their disposable incomes actually did not decline significantly, on average, because of sharply increased government transfer payments during those years.⁴

The immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, then, saw a significant narrowing of the gap separating extreme positions on the income scale. As the economy began to recover, however, the reverses suffered by those at the top quickly faded, while hourly earnings continued to stagnate for those at the bottom. By the spring of 2013, the Dow had exceeded its 2007 peak, and in the first full year after the recession officially ended, the top 1 percent of earners captured a staggering 93 percent of the economy’s total income growth.

That the underlying trend reemerged so quickly should be unsurprising. As I argue in chapter 10, the growth in pretax income inequality between 1970 and 2007 was largely a consequence of technical change and increased competition that increased the economic leverage of the most able performers in every arena. And because those forces still have considerable room to play out, the prospect is for inequality to continue increasing. If it does, the economic background going forward will be little different from the one that made Falling Behind seem so timely in 2007.

As they did then, traditional economic models continue to assume that utility depends only on absolute consumption. Yet compelling evidence suggests that it also depends heavily on the context in which consumption occurs.⁶ Context matters simply because the human brain requires a frame of reference within which to make any evaluative judgment.

Consider, for example, someone who is pondering whether his house is adequate. The answer to that question will almost always depend on the quality and size distributions of houses in the local environment. Decades ago, I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Nepal, during which time I lived in a small two-room house with no plumbing or electricity. Yet because it was more spacious and comfortable than most other houses in the village where I lived, I never experienced it as inadequate. If I lived in the same house in Ithaca, New York, however, I would experience it as distressingly substandard. My children would have felt ashamed for their friends to see where they lived.

By the same token, if my friends and colleagues from Nepal were to see my house in Ithaca, they would think I’d taken leave of my senses. Why, they’d wonder, would anyone need such a huge house with so many bathrooms? Yet my friends here, many of whom live in significantly larger houses than mine, never have that reaction.

Context matters not just in subjective evaluation but also in people’s ability to achieve concrete objectives. If you’re applying for a job, for example, you’re advised to look good when you go for your interview. But looking good is an inescapably relative concept. It is in your interest to compare favorably with other applicants for the same job. If they all spend more on clothing, your best bet may be to spend more as well, even though if you all spend more, none of you will be more likely to land the job.

Likewise, expenditures on housing affect a family’s ability to achieve important goals. Most families, for example, want to send their children to good schools. But a good school is also an inherently relative concept. It is one that is better than most other schools. In almost every local environment, the good schools tend to be those in more expensive neighborhoods. In countries like the United States, that is true in part because local property taxes typically fund school budgets.

Because of powerful peer effects in the classroom, however, the same link exists even when school budgets are completely independent of local property taxes. The children of high-income parents enter kindergarten with many important advantages, so the learning environment in the schools they attend tends to foster strong academic performance. But to send its children to those schools, a family must bid for the relatively expensive housing in the neighborhoods they serve. Thus the best schools in Paris, where per-pupil expenditures are the same citywide, are in the Eighth and Sixteenth Arrondissements, which also have by far the most expensive housing.

In short, absolute income is a highly imperfect measure of a person’s ability not just to enjoy subjectively satisfying consumption experiences but also to achieve many important life goals. That’s the most important message of Falling Behind, and it will be as relevant in the years ahead as it was in 2007.

Despite the incontestable importance of context, the primary index of well-being in economies around the world remains GDP per capita, a measure that completely ignores context. That per-capita GDP is an imperfect index of economic welfare is not news. But recent work suggests that its weaknesses are far more serious than many believe.⁷ Continued focus on per-capita GDP has inevitably distorted economic policy in the direction of promoting growth in this index, even at the expense of other factors known to promote well-being. I’ll conclude this preface with a simple empirical exercise that illustrates the magnitude of this distortion.

I emphasize at the outset that the distortion has nothing to do with negative emotions such as envy or jealousy. There is