An Honest Look at Worker Pay

Michael Strain says that wages have grown more than people think. The usual figures from lefties are rigged, he says, by starting in 1973 and using the CPI to calculate inflation. If you start in 1990 and use the PCE index instead, wages of blue-collar workers¹ have gone up 32 percent. Not bad!

Strain’s math is correct. But let’s take him up on his choice of starting date and inflation index. Here’s the chart he doesn’t show:

It’s true, using Strain’s measures, that worker pay has increased 32 percent since 1990. That’s about 1 percent per year. But overall national income has grown three times as fast. Where is all that extra income going? Here is Strain:

I’m not trying to be sanguine here. Americans have high expectations for wage and income growth, and we shouldn’t be satisfied with the gains we’ve enjoyed over the past three or five decades….But messages matter. If all people hear is that wages have been stagnant for decades as part of a game rigged to benefit people at the top — well, they might believe it.

I’d say that people have every reason to believe this. If national income has gone up 109 percent since 1990, why hasn’t the income of ordinary workers also gone up that much? I think we all know the answer.

¹As usual, I’m using “blue-collar” as shorthand for what the BLS calls “production and nonsupervisory workers.” This includes about 80 percent of the population.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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