The Surprising Good News about American Incomes

The Surprising Good News about American Incomes

October 26, 2015

For a change, the latest Census Bureau data on what’s happened to the incomes of Americans is good news. For the first time since the 1990s and 1980s, household incomes rose substantially in 2014, and did so across all demographic groups. You might miss the good news if you looked simply at everyone’s median income or median wage. What’s actually happening becomes clear only when you track, as I have, the income paths of various “age cohorts,” year after year as they grow older. Using this approach, the new data show that across households headed by people in their late 20s, their late 30s and their late 40s in 2013, median household income grew an average of nearly 2.7 percent in 2014.

This is a big and important change: As documented in my recent Brookings Institution report on income progress since 1980, the median income of households headed by people of comparable ages in 2001 declined an average of 0.1 percent per year from 2002 to 2013.

Drilling into the new data, we also see that households headed by minorities made considerably greater progress in 2014 than their counterparts headed by whites; and households headed by men had larger income gains than those headed by women. Yet, all of those groups saw significant income growth. Most striking, households headed by high school graduates, as well as those headed by college grads made substantial income progress in 2014; and even those households headed by people without high school diplomas had significant gains. While all of these happy developments reflect just one year’s data, they nevertheless bear watching.

Let’s step back and put these new data in their larger context. The Brookings study covered the period 1980 to 2013. I followed the incomes of households headed by people who were 25 to 29 years-old in 1975, until they reached age 59; and then repeated that process for households headed by people who were 25 to 29 in 1982; as well as 25 to 29 in 1991, and 25 to 29 in 2001. The analysis showed that across age groups and across gender, race and ethnicity, and education, Americans made strong, steady income progress as they aged through the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2002, however, the median household incomes of the same groups have declined, stagnated or grown much more slowly, depending on their demographics.

I also examined the income progress of three age cohorts under each of the last five presidents, tracing the income paths of households headed by people who were 25 to 29, 35 to 39, and 45 to 49 at the beginning of each president’s administration. (For these income records by president, I began in year two of each administration and ended in year one of the following administration, because economic conditions and income results in the first year of any presidency are set by the preceding administration.)

As expected, the new 2014 data improve Barack Obama’s record. Over his presidency thus far, income growth across the three age cohorts has averaged 1.2 percent per year, as people aged from 2010 to 2014. That’s a big step up from George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush: Income progress across comparable age groups averaged 0.2 percent per year under Bush I and 0.3 percent per year under Bush II. The income progress under Obama is also a big step back from annual gains averaging 2.6 percent under Bill Clinton and 2.4 percent under Ronald Reagan. Nonetheless, income growth in 2014 roughly equaled the strong, sustained gains under Clinton and Reagan.

The question is, why did this happen? First and probably foremost, employment accelerated sharply last year: The United States created 2.95 million net new jobs in 2014, compared to an average of 528,000 net job gains per year from 2002 to 2013; and 1.78 million per year from 2010 to 2013.

Strong job creation can have powerful effects on incomes, especially for people working near the margins of the economy. This effect is evident in the 2014 income progress by people without college degrees. Across the three age cohorts, incomes increased 4.8 percent among households headed by high school educated graduates and by 2.6 percent among those headed by people without any diplomas. In stark contrast, the median incomes of comparable households decline substantially from 2002 to 2013.

Beyond jobs, U.S. businesses also enjoyed relief in 2014 from fast-rising health care and energy costs, which allowed them to attract and retain employees by raising wages and salaries. Spending by employers on health insurance for family medical coverage, for example, rose less than 2 percent in 2014, as compared to increases averaging nearly 7 percent per year from 2002 to 2013 and nearly 5 percent per year from 2010 to 2013. Similarly, energy costs for industrial and commercial businesses, which rose by an average of more than 6 percent per year from 2002 to 2008, virtually flat-lined in 2014.

Yet, even with 2014’s strong gains, years of flat or falling incomes for many Americans have left us with stark inequalities within the middle class. Across our three age cohorts, the median income of households headed by men averaged $71,382 in 2014 — 25 percent greater than the $56,946 median income of households headed by women.

Inequalities based on race and ethnicity are much larger, even though 2014 was a very good year for minorities. In 2014, the median income of households headed by whites across the three age cohorts averaged $74,149, or 85 percent greater than the $40,049 level for the households headed by African-Americans and 56 percent greater than the $47,440 average for those headed by Hispanics.

Finally, the vast income disparities based on education keep expanding. Across the three age cohorts, the median income of households headed by college graduates averaged $101,298 in 2014 — 113 percent greater than the $47,560 average for households headed by high school graduates and 269 percent more than the $30,146 average for households headed by people without any diploma. With such gaping differences, it is no surprise that many of this year’s would-be presidents, especially among the Democrats, have plans to reduce or eliminate tuition burdens at public colleges and universities.