America’s inequality problem in one statistic

If you work for a big corporation, your boss likely made more money on January 2 than you will this whole year.

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If you work for a big corporation, there’s a very good chance your boss has already raked in more cash than you will all year.

If the typical CEO of a large U.S. corporation clocked in at 9 am on January 2, by 3:37 pm that afternoon he’d made $58,260 — the average annual salary for all U.S. occupations. In less than seven hours on the first workday of the year, that CEO made as much as the average U.S. worker will make all year long.

I recently took a look at the even wider disparities for various types of essential workers. My calculations are based on average S&P 500 CEO pay of $18.3 million in 2021 (the most recent figure available), which works out to $8,798 per hour, or $147 per minute.

I started by looking at the fast food workers who often toiled straight through the holidays. Most McDonald’s restaurants were open even on Christmas Day. Average pay for this labor force is just $26,060 for the whole year.

A typical CEO banked that by noon on his first day back in the corner office suite.

Then I thought of the home care aides who may have been the only people around to cheer up their homebound elderly and disabled clients over the holidays. They earned an average of just $29,260 in 2021.

The typical CEO of a big U.S. corporation pocketed that much by lunchtime on his first workday of the year. And he had to work less than one hour more to make $36,460, the average annual pay for a pre-K teacher.

CEOs put in just a couple more hours to earn as much as the annual pay for roofers, many of whom are swamped helping families by taking on the treacherous job of repairing winter storm damage.

For this dangerous work, the average roofer made $48,890 in 2021. Auto mechanics who rescue stranded travelers from roadsides and help them get where they need to go make about the same as roofers, with an average annual paycheck of $47,990.

By afternoon tea time — or perhaps early Happy Hour — on January 2, CEOs claimed as much as the annual pay for another dangerous occupation on which we all depend: firefighters. Their average annual pay of $55,290 is the equivalent of about six hours and 20 minutes of CEO pay time.

These figures are disturbing, but the good news is that Americans increasingly reject the old myth that CEOs make so much money because they’re just that much smarter and harder-working than the rest of us. Public outrage over these extreme pay gaps is now so high that a majority of Americans across the political spectrum favor a cap on CEO pay relative to worker pay, regardless of company performance.

We are seeing broadening support for an array of strategies to address these obscene pay gaps, including proposals to use tax and contracting policies to rein in executive excess. This year, let’s commit to building on this momentum towards a more equitable economy.

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IPS Global Economy Project Director Sarah Anderson’s current work includes research, writing, and networking on issues related to the impact of international trade, finance, and investment policies on inequality, sustainability, and human rights. Sarah is also a well-known expert on executive compensation, as the lead author of 16 annual “Executive Excess” reports that have received extensive media coverage. In 2009, she served on an advisory committee to the Obama administration on bilateral investment treaties. In 2000, she served on the staff of the bipartisan International Financial Institutions Advisory Commission (“Meltzer Commission”), commissioned by the U.S. Congress to evaluate the World Bank and IMF. Sarah is also a board member of Jubilee USA Network and a co-author of the books Field Guide to the Global Economy (New Press, 2nd edition, 2005) and Alternatives to Economic Globalization (Berrett-Koehler, 2nd edition, 2004). Prior to coming to IPS in 1992, Sarah was a consultant to the U.S. Agency for International Development (1989-1992) and an editor for the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (1988). She holds a Masters in International Affairs from The American University and a BA in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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