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The Uncomfortable Truth About American Wages

REPOST – ARTICLE SOURCE:
http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/22/the-uncomfortable-truth-about-american-wages/

Michael Greenstone is director of the Hamilton Project and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is also the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics at M.I.T. Adam Looney is policy director of the Hamilton Project and a senior fellow at Brookings.

Job creation has rightly been the central economic issue of the last three years as the United States continues its recovery. But the problems with the job market are not entirely recent. The downturn also exacerbated longer-term challenges in the labor market that are driven by a variety of factors, including technological change, international trade and the decline of unions. Many of these forces have been around since the 19th century, but today, for what may be the first time in American history, we are failing to invest enough in our skills and productivity to stay ahead of these trends, and the impacts of this failure are reflected in the declining wages of many American workers.

Because the role of women in the labor force has changed strikingly over the last 40 years, the problem is most evident in trends in male earnings. And, in fact, there has been a lot of talk about the stagnating wages of American male workers. Using conventional methods of analysis, the data show that the median earnings for prime-age (25-64) working men have declined slightly from 1970 to 2010, falling by 4 percent after adjusting for inflation.

This finding of stagnant wages is unsettling, but also quite misleading. For one thing, this statistic includes only men who have jobs. In 1970, 94 percent of prime-age men worked, but by 2010, that number was only 81 percent. The decline in employment has been accompanied by increases in incarceration rates, higher rates of enrollment in the Social Security Disability Insurance program and more Americans struggling to find work. Because those without jobs are excluded from conventional analyses of Americans’ earnings, the statistics we most commonly see — those that illustrate a trend of wage stagnation — present an overly optimistic picture of the middle class.

When we consider all working-age men, including those who are not working, the real earnings of the median male have actually declined by 19 percent since 1970. This means that the median man in 2010 earned as much as the median man did in 1964 — nearly a half century ago. Men with less education face an even bleaker picture; earnings for the median man with a high school diploma and no further schooling fell by 41 percent from 1970 to 2010.

Strengthening our K-12 education system and increasing college-completion rates are, therefore, imperative to improving living standards for future generations. It is also clear that changes in the global economy that generate vast opportunities for the American economy have created difficulties for many Americans; the continued pursuit of pro-growth policies will require the identification of policies that help these workers to remain active participants in the economy. These are difficult tasks, but the last four decades demonstrate that the stakes are high. Our children’s living standards are at risk, and with them the American Dream that each generation can do better than the previous one.

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