The Stagnating Wage Myth

Prior to the election, folks on the left were pushing the idea that US wages had been stagnating.  Often this argument was a subset of a zero-sum class warfare rant, complaining that though the economy has grown, the "rich" have taken all the gains.

There were always two problems with the hypothesis that real wages were stagnating:

  1. "Wages" are only a part of total compensation.  In fact, I don't think anyone denies that real compensation (wages plus benefits) has been growing, and it would not surprise me that non-wage compensation, like health care, has grown much faster than wages.  A discussion about only one component of total compensation is nearly irrelevant.
  2. Even if the average is stagnating, that does not mean that the wages for individuals is stagnating.  What is actually going on is that everyone's real wages are improving, but new low-skill low-wage immigrants and teenagers move in behind them and bring the average down.  If you showed real wages for people who were in the work force in 1980 without any entrants after that, average wages would be way up.  The average is less important, from a general well-being standpoint, than what is happening to individuals.

The New York Sun (Hat tip: Most all the libertarian blogosphere) that also takes on these issues.  The author makes the further distinction between individual and family income, and argues you also need to correct for changing family sizes.

The American family has
shrunk due to changes in society, such as more divorces, longer
life-expectancy for women, and fewer children. So family income in 2004
cannot correctly be compared to family income in 1964 "” today's family
income is spread around fewer people.

Adjusting for decreasing family size, real median family income is
13% higher than in 1994, 22% higher than in 1984, 37% higher than in
1974, and 88% higher than in 1964. That's a significant increase.

One Comment

  1. Slithe:

    Have those wages been adjusted for inflation?