Does the United States have a ‘strong’ economy?

The bottom line: The economy that America’s rich run is doing quite well for America’s rich.

SOURCECampaign for America's Future
Image Credit: Getty Images

Long-time Republican Party political strategists are having fits. If only we could get average Americans to focus in on the economy instead of The Donald, they’re telling all comers, the GOP would do just fine in the upcoming November midterm elections.

Those Republican strategists should be careful what they wish for. Getting average Americans to focus in on the economy ought to be the last thing in the world they want voters to do.

That economy is doing average Americans no favors. And now we have some powerful new evidence to that effect, from data-rich reports just released by the Census Bureau and one of America’s top independent analysts of household well-being, the Pew Research Center.

Both sets of researchers tell the same story: Average Americans have no reason to be celebrating our contemporary economy.

“Most families,” as Economic Policy Institute senior economist Elise Gould puts it, “have just barely made up the ground lost over the past decade.”

News stories on the new Census report have so far been giving the Bureau’s latest income numbers a generally positive spin. Media outlets are headlining an increase in America’s real median income, from $60,309 in 2016 to $61,372 last year. But that increase in median income obscures a more complicated — and much less encouraging — reality.

To most Americans, the best marker of a healthy economy will always be a decent-paying, full-time job. An economy, in effect, only deserves celebrating when people with full-time jobs are taking home rising paychecks. In America today, they aren’t.

Median annual earnings for both men and women working full-time actually dropped 1.1 percent last year, in real dollars. Since 2007, male full-time workers have seen their paychecks drop 2.5 percent in value.

Stepping back a bit more in time, we can see how shrinking full-time wages are impacting economic life as most Americans experience it. Since the year 2000, the household income of the typical non-elderly American household has dropped 2.7 percent.

For average Americans, in other words, this hasn’t been a great century.

Indeed, for average Americans, this hasn’t been a particularly great past 50 years. Americans in the “statistical” middle class — the 20 percent of Americans in the exact middle of our income distribution — have seen their real household incomes increase by less than an average 1 percent per year since 1967, the latest Census numbers show.

Investigators at the Pew Research Center have a different take on how to define middle class. They stick the middle class label on adults whose household incomes range from two-thirds of the typical American household income to double that amount, after adjusting for household size.

In 2016, says the Pew Center’s newly published research, America’s middle class households — 52 percent of the nation’s population — had a typical income of $78,442, about the same exact income of the typical middle class household in 2000.

The U.S. middle class, writes Pew analyst Rakesh Kochhar, does finally appear “not to be shrinking” in size, at least for now. But middle-class households are continuing “to fall further behind upper-income households financially, mirroring the long-running rise in income inequality in the U.S. overall.”

In 2016, Kochhar adds, wealth gaps between upper-income families and both lower- and middle-income families stood “at the highest levels recorded.”

The bottom line: The economy that America’s rich run is doing quite well for America’s rich.

And that statistic on rising median income that news stories on the new Census report are headlining? Census Bureau researchers are asking us to take the latest median income number with a grain of salt.

Yes, notes Jonathan Rothbaum, the chief of the Census Bureau’s Income Statistics Branch, the new Census Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017 report does show the 2017 U.S. median income to be the highest on record. But that “record” status rests on a change that Census researchers made in their income survey questions four years ago.

If we adjust for the changed questions, suggests Rothbaum, the 2017 median income actually amounts to less than the incomes typical Americans pocketed in either 2007 or 1999.


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