But a look at five decades’ worth of government wage data suggests that the better question might be, why should now be any different? For most U.S. workers, real wages — that is, after inflation is taken into account — have been flat or even falling for decades, regardless of whether the economy has been adding or subtracting jobs.
Cash money isn’t the only way workers are compensated, of course — health insurance, retirement-account contributions, education and transit subsidies and other benefits all can be part of the package. But wages and salaries are the biggest (about 70%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and most visible component of employee compensation.
According to the BLS, the average hourly wage for non-management private-sector workers last month was $20.67, unchanged from August and 2.3% above the average wage a year earlier. That’s not much, especially when compared with the pre-Great Recession years of 2006 and 2007, when the average hourly wage often increased by around 4% year-over-year. (During the high-inflation years of the 1970s and early 1980s, average wages commonly jumped 8%, 9% or even more year-over-year.)
But after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.
A similar measure, “usual weekly earnings” of employed, full-time, wage and salary workers, tells much the same story, albeit over a shorter time period. In seasonally adjusted current dollars, median usual weekly earnings rose from $232 in the first quarter 0f 1979 (when the series began) to $782 in the second quarter of this year (the most recent data available). But in real terms, the median has barely budged over that period.
Wage stagnation has been a staple of economic analysis and commentary for a while now, though perhaps predictably there’s little agreement about what’s driving it. One theory is that rising benefit costs — particularly employer-provided health insurance — may be constraining employers’ ability or willingness to raise wages. According to BLS-generated cost indexes for wages/salaries and total benefits, benefit costs have risen about 60% since 2001 (when the data series began), versus about 37% for wage and salary costs. (Those indexes do not take inflation into account.)
Other factors that have been suggested include continued labor-market slack; lagging educational attainment relative to other countries; and a broad decline in better-paying jobs and consequent shift toward job growth in low-wage industries.
In a Pew Research Center survey from August, 56% of Americans said their family’s income was falling behind the cost of living, up from 44% in September 2007 — just before the recession hit. More than a third (37%) of Americans in the latest poll said their family’s income was staying about even with inflation; only 5% said they were staying ahead of inflation.