On the face of it, these should be heady times for American workers. U.S. unemployment is as low as it’s been in nearly two decades (3.9% as of July) and the nation’s private-sector employers have been adding jobs for 101 straight months – 19.5 million since the Great Recession-related cuts finally abated in early 2010, and 1.5 million just since the beginning of the year.
But despite the strong labor market, wage growth has lagged economists’ expectations. In fact, despite some ups and downs over the past several decades, today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.
The disconnect between the job market and workers’ paychecks has fueled much of the recent activism in states and cities around raising minimum wages, and it also has become a factor in at least some of this year’s congressional campaigns.
Average hourly earnings for non-management private-sector workers in July were $22.65, up 3 cents from June and 2.7% above the average wage from a year earlier, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s in line with average wage growth over the past five years: Year-over-year growth has mostly ranged between 2% and 3% since the beginning of 2013. But in the years just before the 2007-08 financial collapse, average hourly earnings often increased by around 4% year-over-year. And during the high-inflation years of the 1970s and early 1980s, average wages commonly jumped 7%, 8% or even 9% year-over-year.
After adjusting for inflation, however, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms average hourly earnings peaked more than 45 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today.
A similar measure – the “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 of 1979 (when the data series began) to $879 in the second quarter of this year, which might sound like a lot. But in real, inflation-adjusted terms, the median has barely budged over that period: That $232 in 1979 had the same purchasing power as $840 in today’s dollars.
Meanwhile, wage gains have gone largely to the highest earners. Since 2000, usual weekly wages have risen 3% (in real terms) among workers in the lowest tenth of the earnings distribution and 4.3% among the lowest quarter. But among people in the top tenth of the distribution, real wages have risen a cumulative 15.7%, to $2,112 a week – nearly five times the usual weekly earnings of the bottom tenth ($426).
Cash money isn’t the only way workers are compensated, of course – health insurance, retirement-account contributions, tuition reimbursement, 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.
Real US wages essentially back at 1974 levels, Pew reports
If you get a $1,200 annual raise on the same day that your rent goes up by $100 a month, you don’t need an accountant to tell you that you didn’t actually make any financial progress. And while that’s an excessively simplified example, it’s nonetheless a pretty fair representation of what has been happening to most American workers over the past four decades.
Even though the official unemployment rate has been hovering around record lows in recent years, wage growth has stayed stagnant, a new study from Pew Research reveals. In fact, the real average wage, which Pew defines as “the wage after accounting for inflation” has roughly the same purchasing power as it did 40 years ago. And while some workers have seen gains, most of the increases have gone to those who were already the highest-paid.