Archive for the 'Middle class' Category

Seven links

August 4, 2012

Three recent short pieces of mine:

“America’s struggling lower half,” Roosevelt Institute

“Five myths about the middle class,” Washington Post

“How to make sure a growing U.S. economy helps the poor,” Scholars Strategy Network

Four longer ones not by me:

From Parents to Children, edited by John Ermisch, Markus Jantti, and Tim Smeeding

“Inequality of Income and Consumption,” by Jonathan Fisher, David Johnson, and Tim Smeeding

Affluence and Influence, by Martin Gilens (more here)

“Prosperity Economics,” by Jacob Hacker and John Loewentheil

Can the American economy produce more decent jobs?

June 28, 2011

That’s the topic of a New America Foundation forum, with contributions by Robert Atkinson, Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz, Heather Boushey, James Galbraith, Joel Kotkin, Thomas Kochan, Katherine Newman, Paul Osterman, and yours truly.

Mine is titled “Low-wage jobs and no wage growth: Is there a way out?”

Price index clarification

February 3, 2011

Paul Krugman rightly notes a potential problem in comparing the post-1973 trend in GDP with the trend in median income: the price indexes used to adjust for inflation differ. But that’s not an issue in this “decoupling” chart. It uses the same price index for both.

The great decoupling

January 31, 2011

Tyler Cowen’s e-book The Great Stagnation offers a novel explanation of the slowdown in U.S. median income growth since the 1970s. Here’s his causal model:

Innovation —> economic growth —> median income growth

In this model there are three potential sources of the reduction in median income growth:

1. Innovation has slowed.

2. The degree to which innovation boosts economic growth has declined.

3. The degree to which economic growth boosts median income growth has declined.

Cowen argues for hypothesis #1. He cites an estimate by Jonathan Huebner, a Pentagon physicist, that the rate of global innovation per capita peaked in the late 1800s, remained high to the mid-1950s, and then steadily declined. And he suggests that whereas “The period from 1880 to 1940 brought numerous major technological advances into our lives…. Today … apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what it was in 1953.” The high rate of innovation through the mid-1950s enabled rapid economic growth for a few additional decades. But beginning in the 1970s economic growth slowed, and along with it median income growth.

The book is well worth reading. (At four dollars it’s also a good deal — less than a large latte, a Sunday New York Times, or a newsstand copy of The Atlantic.) But I’m skeptical on two counts.

First, I’m not convinced that innovation has in fact slowed significantly. Cowen discusses the internet but not computers more generally. Computers are the engine of the postindustrial economy; they are the modern counterpart to steel, railroads, and the assembly line. Advances in computer hardware and software, their widespread dissemination, and their application to myriad tasks — automation and coordination of supply chains in manufacturing, record keeping and scheduling in services, and much much more — surely represent a massive improvement.

Second, the data point to hypothesis #3. A key difference between the WW2-1973 period and the decades since then is that median income growth has become decoupled from economic growth. (Mark Thoma makes this point too.) The rate of economic growth has been lower in the recent era, but it’s nevertheless been decent. Yet median income growth has been very slow. This contrasts sharply with the prior period.

Here’s one way to see this (others here):

Between 1947 and 1973, GDP per family increased at a rate of 2.6% per year and median family income grew at 2.7% per year. From 1973 to 2007, GDP per family increased at 1.7% per year, but median family income grew at just 0.7% per year.

And note the absolute numbers: GDP per family rose by $52,000 during 1947-73 and then by $82,000 during 1973-2007. Median family income increased by $26,000 during 1947-73 but then by just $13,000 in 1973-2007.

Median family income was $64,000 in 2007. Had it kept pace with GDP per family since the mid-1970s, it instead would have been around $90,000.

I’m all for helping to accelerate the rate of innovation. But the big change in recent decades lies in the degree to which economic growth lifts middle-class incomes. If we want to understand slow income growth, that should be our focus.

Is winner-take-all bad or good for the middle class? Evidence from baseball

January 11, 2011

A “winner-take-all” market is one in which the top stars get paid much more than anyone else. It’s an apt description of the American economy in recent decades. Top financiers, CEOs, entertainers, and athletes now routinely earn more than ten million dollars a year, and the share of all income (after taxes) going to the top 1% of households jumped from 8% in 1979 to 17% in 2007.

What impact does the rise in the share taken by those at the top have on the incomes of those in the middle? On one view it’s bad: if the additional millions going to the “winners” had instead been spread among those in the middle, the latter would have been better off. Others suggest the impact is good: winner-take-all markets help make the pie bigger than it otherwise would have been, and a larger pie means a larger slice for the middle class in absolute terms, even if that slice has shrunk relative to the slice of those at the top.*

Pay in major league baseball is a good test case. Since the 1970s professional baseball has had the two defining characteristics of a winner-take-all market: owners’ and/or consumers’ judgment that top stars are much more valuable than the next best, and stars’ ability to exit if offered better pay elsewhere. Salaries for baseball’s top players have skyrocketed. Also helpful: unlike in pro football and basketball, baseball teams’ total pay is not limited by a salary cap.

Here are the two contending hypotheses:

1. Winner-take-all is bad for middle-pay players. Stars’ big paychecks come largely at the expense of their teams’ mid-level players.

2. Winner-take-all is good for middle-pay players. Teams that pay big money for top stars enjoy greater revenue growth via higher game attendance, richer TV deals, better jersey and hat sales, and so on. The stars collect a growing share of these teams’ total payroll, but this is more than offset by the degree to which they help boost the payroll. As a result, salaries for the middle players on these teams increase more than on other teams. has data on the salaries of all major league players since the mid-1980s. I’ll examine change from 1989 to 2007, as both are business-cycle-peak years. (I exclude the four teams created after 1989. The Cincinnati Reds also are left out, due to missing 1989 salary data.)

Does paying big money for top stars enlarge the pie? On the horizontal axis of the following chart is change in the share of each team’s total pay that goes to its top three players. Consistent with what we would expect in a winner-take-all market, for most teams that share rose. For example, in 1989 the best-paid trio of players on the San Francisco Giants got 22% of the team’s total pay. In 2007 the Giants’ top three got 40% of the total pay, an increase of 18 percentage points. On the chart’s vertical axis is 1989-to-2007 change in each team’s total pay, in millions of inflation-adjusted dollars. The hypothesized positive association isn’t there. Teams that increased the portion of their pie going to their top three players haven’t gotten a faster-growing pie in return.

That points us toward hypothesis 1, which says a rising share of a team’s pay going to its top stars is bad for those in the middle. As the next chart shows, that’s indeed how things have played out. The chart plots the change in pay for each team’s middle five players from 1989 to 2007 by the change in the top three players’ share of the team’s total pay. Middle-player salaries have tended to grow less rapidly on teams in which the top three’s share has risen more.

The following set of charts elaborates a bit. It shows changes in top players’ pay and changes in middle players’ pay for four teams. The first two teams, the San Francisco Giants and Toronto Blue Jays, are on the right side of the second chart above. Pay for their top three players exploded. It rose for their middle players too, but much more modestly. The next two teams, the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers, are on the left side of the second chart above. Pay for their top three players rose sharply, but less than for their counterparts on the Giants and Blue Jays. Their middle players, by contrast, did better.

But that’s not the full story. To the two hypotheses listed above we should add a third:

3. Winner-take-all is bad for middle-pay players, but its harm is outweighed by other developments.

The “other” development that has mattered most is the growth in team payrolls. Total pay for the median team soared from $23 million in 1989 to $89 million in 2007. This has been the key determinant of salary growth for middle-pay major league players. On average, the pay of the middle five players rose by $300,000 less on a team with a ten-percentage-point increase in the top three players’ pay share than on a comparable team with no change in the top three’s share.** But salaries for the middle five players nevertheless increased on almost all teams, in many instances handsomely so. Across all teams, the average increase for the middle five between 1989 and 2007 was $1 million, nearly a 200% rise. Even among the six teams on which the top three players’ share of pay rose the most — those to the right in the second chart: Houston, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, Oakland, and the L.A. Angels — the average increase for the middle five players was $540,000.

What accounts for the sharp jump in team payrolls? One element is enhanced revenues due to expanded demand for tickets, TV rights, and team paraphernalia. Another is a shift in the balance of power away from owners in favor of players. These developments have enabled some teams — the New York Yankees are the paramount example, as you can see in the second chart above — to concentrate a growing share of pay on their top three ballplayers and simultaneously provide a large rise in pay for their “middle-class” players.

Implications for the broader economy probably are limited. One, though, is that even if winner-take-all hurts middle-class incomes, if we had very rapid economic growth it might not matter much. Alas, figuring out how to get that isn’t so easy. A good substitute might be moderately strong growth coupled with strong unions (as in the 1950s and 1960s) or low unemployment (as in the late 1990s). But I’m not too optimistic about that either.


* Some recent analysis and commentary: Andrews-Jencks-Leigh, Cowen, Drum, Kenworthy, Klein, Thoma, Yglesias.

** This is based on a regression of change in middle-five players’ pay on change in top-three players’ share of team pay, change in total team pay, and 1989 level of middle-five players’ pay.

The politics of helping the poor

July 1, 2010

Slides from my talk at the Luxembourg Income Study conference on “Inequality and the Middle Class.”

The conference papers are available online.

Prosperity in America

March 8, 2010

Lecture slides for the “Prosperity in America” section of my Social Issues in America course this semester:

Middle America’s standard of living



Economic security



Slow Income Growth for Middle America

September 3, 2008

The economic challenges and strains facing middle-class Americans are likely to get a good bit of attention between now and election day, at least from the Obama campaign. They include sluggish income growth, heightened financial insecurity, rising health care and college costs, and falling home values. Each of these is important, but the most critical in my view is slow growth of incomes.

The following chart tells the story. It shows inflation-adjusted GDP per capita and median family income from 1947 (the earliest year for which the income data are available) to 2007. To facilitate comparison of the over-time trends, each is indexed to its 1973 level. Since the mid-to-late 1970s, growth of income at the median has been slow — very slow — relative to growth of the economy. The current decade, with no improvement at all in median income, is especially striking.

The dashed line in the next chart shows what median income would have looked like had it risen in sync with per capita GDP. The difference is huge: in 2007, the median family’s income would have been $91,000 instead of $61,000.

Various excuses and rationalizations have been offered: It’s okay because Americans now get more in employer benefits instead of in their paycheck. Family size has shrunk, so slow income growth isn’t a big deal. A lot of those in the bottom half are immigrants, and even with slow income growth they’re better off than they would have been in their native country. None of these is compelling (see here or here).

The disconnect between economic growth and middle-class income growth is due largely to rising inequality. In the past several decades much of the economy’s growth has gone to those at the top of the income distribution.

Faster income growth wouldn’t render other middle-class strains irrelevant. But it would help.


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