Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

What is the Economic Middle Class?

My lovely wife shared this link with me on Facebook.  I got into a discussion in comments there with a right winger who suggested that $250,000 was a very reasonable estimate for median income in Boston.

As it turns out, median household income in Boston is $51,914, close to the national average, and way below the Mass. State average of $67,950.  But right wingers live in a data-free world, so this is no surprise.

Another contention in comments at that site is that the middle class is undefined and undefinable. Not so.  I define middle class household income as the middle quintile.  This range includes the median and a band around it wide enough to hold 20 percent of the population.  You might wish to concoct your own definition with a wider spread, but you’d better not be asymmetric around the median.  Feel free to use the middle three quintiles, if that is your preference.  But if your of concept of middle class gets very far beyond 50% of the population, you really ought to give more thought to what the word “middle” actually means.

Thinking about all this prompted a look at the various income quintiles.  The data, through 2009, is available at the Census Bureau web site, table 694.  This table provides historical data from 1967 through 2009 on the top income limit for the bottom 4 quintiles, and the bottom income limit for the top 5%, expressed in constant 2009 dollars.

Graph 1 presents this data.  The 3rd quintile – my definition of the middle class – is between the orange line and the yellow line.

In 1967, the threshold for the middle quintile was $32, 848.  By 2009, it had increased by 17% to $38,550.  This is a compounded annual growth rate of 0.38%

In 1967, the top limit for the middle (and threshold to the 4th) quintile was $46, 621.  By 2009, it had increased by 33% to $61,801. This is a compounded annual growth rate of 0.68%.

The threshold value for the fifth quintile increased from $66,481 in 1967 by 80% to exactly $100,000 in 2009.  This is a compounded annual growth rate of 0.98%.

To reach the top 5% required an income of 106,684 in 1967.  By 2009, this had increased by 69% to $180, 001.   This is a compounded annual growth rate of 1.25%.

So my comment sparring partner and the current presidential challenger he seems to support are a bit off base.  $250,000 in household income puts a family well above the 95th percentile.  In fact, that is just enough household income to crack the top 2%.

My ongoing hobby of debunking right wing nonsense aside, the point of this post is mainly to inform.
There are two main observations:
1) While the bottom two quintiles haven’t changed much over the decades, entry to the third quintile has crept up a bit; and into higher categories it’s moved up a lot.  We recognize this as stagnation in the bottom half and growing inequality in the top half, skewed powerfully to the top.
2) This data set stops in ’09, so Obama is outside the discussion.  But we can see that all the way up to the 95th percentile, income growth was dead flat during the Bush administration.  No wonder the 95% percentile feels so poor.

But — surely, some wealth was generated during those 8 years.  GDP growth was positive at least some of the time.  I wonder where it all went?

Cross posted at Retirement Blues.

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The Best Data on Middle Class Decline (Updated)

by Kenneth Thomas who writes The Middle Class Economist
(corrected author name)

The Best Data on Middle Class Decline (Updated)

The flurry of posts earlier this month on middle class decline (me, Lane Kenworthy, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum) made me think some more about what the best way is to show what’s happened since the peak of real wages in the early 1970s. While in my opinion there is no perfect measure, there are a lot of choices to be made, and I argue below why real wages for production and non-supervisory workers, with an adjustment for non-wage compensation, is the best single measure.

Choice 1: Household/family vs. individual

While we all live in households or families, over the past 40 years, there has been a decline in persons per household (see Kenworthy) and an increase in incomes per household as women’s labor force participation has increased. The decline in persons per household means that a household needs less income than in the past to have a fixed per capita income. The increase in incomes per household has meant that households have had higher real income even as real individual income has fallen, as pointed out by commenter peggy_Boston in the comments thread of Drum’s article. To my mind, this is partly causal; that is, because real wages have fallen, families have had to have more incomes in order to maintain their living standards. Indeed, falling real wages have forced families to run up high levels of debt, with non-mortgage debt reaching 1/3 of family income by 2005. Therefore, I think individual data is the right choice here.

Choice 2: Median income vs. production and non-supervisory workers’ income

The median (middle value, with an equal number of observations above and below it) has big advantages over the arithmetic mean in trying to show the typical situation in a distribution of values. It is especially useful for income distributions, where the presence of very high incomes means that the mean is much higher than the median. In fact, the literature on “decoupling” (see Kenworthy above) demonstrates just how much this is the case. But I think that “production and non-supervisory workers” captures our intuition about who is in the middle class even better than the median does.

This series, in Table B-47 of the Economic Report of the President, is an average of the earnings of employed persons in private (non-government), non-agricultural jobs. It includes about 80% of the private workforce and 64% of the total non-agricultural workforce. Despite being an average, its exclusion of supervisory workers means that virtually all of the extremely high values that distort the mean of the entire workforce are eliminated. It is, essentially, the mean income of the bottom 80% of private workers. The biggest drawback to this dataset is that it does not include non-supervisory government workers, but I think that is outweighed by its broader coverage of the middle class than the pure median income (or middle quintile, as in Kenworthy’s post).

For the counterargument, that changes in composition of production & non-supervisory workers can cause distortions that the median wage is not subject to, see Dean Baker (p. 9).

Choice 3: Weekly vs. hourly
Baker mentions hourly earnings rates in some cases. As I discussed in the comments section of my March 11 post, the decline in hours worked per week (from 36.9 hours in 1972 to 33.6 hours in 2011) suggests to me that we need weekly, not hourly, wages.

Choice 4: Which inflation data to believe?
Shortly after President Clinton’s first election, I predicted to my students that, because his message of middle-class stagnation (“It’s the economy, stupid”) was dependent on how inflation was measured, that conservatives would soon attack the official Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation data. The issue is, if inflation is overstated, then the decline in real wages reported by the BLS could be overstated or even non-existent. Conversely, if BLS data understates inflation, then real wages have fallen even faster than shown in Table B-47.

Unfortunately, I did not publish this prediction, so you’ll have to take my word for it that I predicted the attack on inflation data that culminated in the Boskin Commission in 1995. I always took this to be a political attack rather than a scientific one. My attitude has always been that trade theory (i.e., the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem; see Ronald Rogowski’s great book Commerce and Coalitions for an explanation of this topic, which I intend to discuss in a later post) predicts that real wages in a relatively labor-scarce country like the United States will fall as trade expands, and the data shows that real wages indeed fell: so what reason do we have to question the data? In the end, though, the Commission concluded that inflation was being overstated by about 1.1 percentage points a year, and the BLS was mandated to adjust its methodology.
Barry Ritholtz takes an even more jaundiced view of the Boskin Commission than I do. Paul Krugman, on the other hand, is not convinced that inflation is now significantly underreported, citing the work of the Billion Prices Project. For the moment, I do not see reason enough to toss out the BLS data, despite the possibility that the Boskin Commission may have introduced distortions into it.
Choice 5: Wages vs. compensation

Martin Feldstein and other economists argue that it is not sufficient to look at wages alone, because the non-wage share of compensation has been growing over the past few decades. As I posted before, total employee compensation includes everyone from the CEO to the janitor, so it overlooks the fact that the top 1% have made almost all the gains from decades of economic growth. Nevertheless, it is clearly true that non-wage compensation has grown faster than wages, as we will see below. In fact, Yglesias suggests that the 2000s actually saw real compensation growth at the median, but it was all in the form of health insurance benefits. Of course, there is some debate over how much value actually comes from extra employer payments for health insurance, as Baker’s paper (p. 10) details

A different way to factor in compensation that I had seen before on the Economic Policy Institute’s website was explained to me in an email by Jared Bernstein and is documented in the footnote of his blog post here. It takes the ratio of total compensation to total wages, both of which are in National Income and Product Accounts Table 1.12 (you can set it to a wider range of years, as I did). Whereas he applies it to median wages, I apply it to Table B-47 and get the following results:

Year Weekly Real Earnings Comp/Wages Weekly Compensation
(1982-84 dollars) (1982-84 dollars)
1972 $341.83 1.14 $388.01
1975 $314.75 1.16 $366.63
1980 $290.86 1.20 $348.93
1985 $285.34 1.22 $347.10
1990 $271.12 1.21 $328.99
1995 $267.07 1.22 $326.23
2000 $284.79 1.20 $341.49
2005 $284.99 1.24 $352.87
2010 $297.67 1.24 $370.28
2011 $294.78 1.24 $365.77
Note: Last two columns rounded from spreadsheet calculations
Sources: Economic Report of the President 2012, Table B-47, National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.12, and author’s calculations
By this measure, compensation in 2011 for most workers was still almost 6% below its 1972 peak. The advantage of this adjustment over Feldstein’s procedure is it strips out the wage inequality of the compensation data, although there is still some overstatement based on inequalities in non-wage compensation. Still, I think this gives us our most accurate picture of what’s happening to the bottom 80% of workers.

That is not to say that this is a perfect measure even with those caveats. It matters what is happening at the top, too. If high wage earners were seeing their income fall faster than middle-class workers, then inequality would be falling and we would probably object less to what would then look like the much-vaunted “shared sacrifice.” But of course, as Kenworthy notes, the share of the top 1% more than doubled from 1979 to 2007, from 8% to 17%. With inequality rising as it is, we now seem to be in danger of a consequent sharp shift of political power to the 1%, as MIT economist Daron Acemoglu told Think Progress’ Pat Garofolo.
I look forward to your comments, especially if I’ve gotten something wrong.
UPDATE: By way of comparison, here is Lane Kenworthy’s chart.

In it, you can see that by either median family income or 3rd quintile household income, incomes started rising shortly after 1980, whereas in my table compensation-adjusted real wages continued to fall until 1995. You can also see the divergence in median family income and Q3 household income between 2000 and 2007, as noted by Yglesias. Whereas the increase is made up entirely of nonwage compensation in the Q3 household income series, in my table at the individual level we have an increase made up partly of wages and partly of nonwage compensation.

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Define Rich V: Looking at the historical labor economy

We are taking a little side trip inthis series of defining rich based on the prior tax rate schedulesbut, this post is keeping with the process of looking at history formarkers as to the definition of rich. For any new readers, I believeas a society we knew and had definite boundaries as to what definedrich. I believe we knew how to say the word “when” as the incomeand wealth was pouring into one’s glass These boundaries producedspecific public policy that resulted in a more equal and justsociety.
In our local city there is anothertextile mill going to the grave. We have lost a couple of huge millsto fire in the last decade.  The local paper did an article on thismill known as the French Worsted Mill. It was built in two stages,1906 and then 1906. It was part of the revival of the mill industryvia specific targeting of French industrialists, post water power forthe city. A local person who was eventually governor of the state iscredited with bring $6,000,000 of foreign investment into the cityearly turn of the century. At one point they had a Uniroyal rubberplant that made soles for shoes The last pair of Keds (sneakers) went out thedoor in 1970. Nine hundred and fifty people out of work due to “FarEaster Producers”.  (See the article: Pressure growsrapidly for Congress to to clamp tariffs on foreign goods, 5/19/1970)  This was a city as industrial asanything Detroit or Pittsburgh were. This was a cultural center forthe region with 6 theaters and I don’t mean just movies. We aretalking blue collar all the way. We’re talking jobs that we considerthrow away jobs to the far east today. We’re talking jobs that are notconsidered “good” jobs anymore.
So, now that you have the picture, hereis what this mill and the jobs within it were able to do for theworkers. I think this bit of history also adds to my position thatwe have continually pushed the cost of the American Dream up theincome line such that the middle class can not afford it…even with2 college educated people in one house. This is the sub-context tothe discussion regarding the decline of the middle class or the lossof the middle class. When people say the middle class does notexist, what is being stated is that the American Dream is no longerfinancially possible for this groups of citizens. The Dream is notdead or gone, it is over priced relative to the income of the middleclass. It is just as we are not drowning in debt, we are dehydratingfrom lack of income.

The article in the paper talked about aMr. Bacon. He worked in the mill in 1956 along with 700 to 800 otherresidents. The job was not as a machine tool maker (the mill as mosthad their own machine shop) or a special machine operator thatrequired special skill. He was a laborer. The tasks mentioned werestuffing waste wool into burlap sacks or “picking up the yarn” orfetching parts from the machine shop. We’re talking menial labortasks. Starter jobs.
For this work Mr. Bacon was paid $1.80per hour. The minimum wage was $1.00 per hour. At some point he wasearning $80 per week for 40 hours work. This is $4160 per year. With this income Mr. Bacon was able to put himself through collegeand became a teacher in the local school system. It was not just anyold college he went to. It was Providence College with a tuition of$500 per year. Yes, a private college that cost only 1/8thof his annual income.
Mr. Bacon’s story is the story that notonly are the Republican presidential candidates promoting as to whatwe need to “get back” to, but the democrats are saying we needto go forward to. Mr. Bacon’s story with this mill is the proof thatthe 2 parties are not talking about a fantasy time in our history. It did exist.
Here’s the problem though with both of their directions. I’m justgoing to list them.
  1. $40,000 is the annual tuition at Providence College today.
  2. $1.80 per hour is equivalent to the following: $14.40/hour standard of living, $17.80 real value, $18.20 unskilled labor and $22.00/hour production labor.
  3. Tuition of $500 is equivalent to the following: $4010.00 standard of living, $4960 real value, $5050 unskilled labor and $6120.00 production labor
Are you seeing the problem here? It’snot just the difference of tuition going up 80 times. It’s that the wage equivalent today for what amounts to stacking shelves in Walmartis not being paid at Walmart. Not only is this Walmart job notpaying such wages, this is what the current autoworker is earning. The autoworker was one of the best compensated citizens we had. Lookup the definition of  middle class in the dictionary, and you would have seen anautoworker!
How bad is this? Considered
Thelow-wage benchmark set by the UAW has already set off a competitivestruggle in the global auto industry, with Fiat-Chrysler boss SergioMarchionne telling Italian workers they must accept American-styleconcessions or he will move production to North America for cheaperlabor.
I have read that the German automakersare here in the US for the same reason. We are now the stop for outsourcing.
Here is the other more important aspectof the story of the French Worsted Mill and it’s relationship to theAmerican Dream. All those candidates, all those legislators, allthose governors proposing programs they say will encourage people toget off welfare and join the “productive” class, programs thatwill spur job creation, programs that will grow the economy such thatwe can cut taxes JUST LIKE THE GOOD OLD DAYS have no answer for thelack of pay of $14.00 per hour for the Walmart shelf stocker. Theyhave no answer as to how they are going to return the ratio betweenthe hourly wage and the cost of college education to that of the1950’s such that an individual can accomplish what Mr. Bacon andothers from the same mill accomplished. Not only do they have noanswer, they don’t even want to consider this aspect of theirsolution.
Mr. Bacon’s story is also telling uswhy we think the public sector is so over paid. If a Walmart shelfstocker should be earning $14.00 hour comparatively but are not, ifan autoworker earning $14.00 per hour is underpaid comparatively,then certainly the higher hourly wages of the public sector lookexcessive. Everyone used to know that the public sector was alwayspaid less compared to the private sector. They did not have morebenefits than the autoworker, but they do now. The slowdeterioration of the autoworkers and all the other laborers pay andbenefits has hidden the reality of the finger pointing at the publicsector. It’s not that they are paid so much, and thus look “rich”by comparison, it’s that the autoworker has lost so much over such along time that the loss is not recognized as a loss. Instead, thepublic sector’s economic position is looked at as an unjust gain. Not only is this presented as an unjust gain, it is an injusticeperpetrated via taxation. And the stage is now set for all thearguments such as those we hear coming from governors such as Walkerand Kasich.
This is where the Keds hit the road. We, and I have to say “We” because We voted in those who made thepolicy changes, have decided that a good job is not one which allowsthe experience of Mr. Bacon or the autoworker. We upped it to be onethat required academic education. No longer would trade education orapprenticeship education be of such value that it would define themiddle class. Unfortunately, as I had suggested in 2007, evenacademic education is being defined down as to not resulting in a “goodjob”.
“The dream seems to now only be adefinite with a 2 person, college educated and working household. That combination is not far from being in the 10% group. Thus, wehave raised the dream to something beyond which a large portion ofthe population will not reach considering only 28% have a 4 yeardegree even though 64% of high school students are entering college. It looks even worse with people suggesting that you need an IQ of 110to succeed in college. I mean, can we push the dream any further outor be anymore aristocratic in our arguments? “

In 2003, the homeownership rate for upper-income families withchildren was 90.8 percent, while the rate for their low- tomoderate-income counterparts was significantly lower at 59.6 percent– yet in 1978 some 62.5 percent of low-to moderate-income workingfamilies with children owned their homes. Ultimately, had the 1978homeownership rates for working families with children prevailed in2003, an additional 2.3 million children would now be living inowner-occupied homes.

How’s this little bit of history change your ideas about what toblame for the current housing/mortgage mess? I suppose if you areall for a future that is less than what was accomplished in the pastthen blaming government for promoting housing and people for spendingbeyond there means is all right by you.

No one in the middle class of yore was rich by any means. But,what they had was a life much freer of risk than today. What theylived in was an environment that provided the means to manage therisk of life and living. When we are told by those running for or inoffice that Americans need to be more…(fill in the blank) they aresuggesting such from within their own experience of having grown upin a socially constructed via government environment that was devoidof certain risks of living based on one’s income. In other words,you would not be told that the requirement for food stamps would meanyou had to have less than $2000 in savings.

The removal of these risks allowed one to take what theypersonally had (natural ability and otherwise) and grow it into alife where economically more of life’s risks could be taken onindividually.   It was an environment which removed the concept ofluck from the social justice equation.

This environment was not all welfare. It was an environment thatassured a person of common acuity could live a life free from therisk of weather, malnourishment, illness and aging. It was anenvironment that produced an economy such that the vast majority ofthe 72% without a college education were living this minimal risklife. We had an environment which supported the economic life journeyof the autoworker, simultaneously supporting the economic life journey of Mr.Bacon’s experience, simultaneous supporting the economic life journey of anindividual such as President Obama.

It was an economic environment which produced a directrelationship between income/wealth and risk absorption. As incomeand wealth went up, so did the absorption of risk and vice versa. Today we

have a system that is completely theopposite such that we have arrived at place where the relationship iscompletely reversed. We spare those who as a group can purchase agovernment which insulates them from any risk while pushing all therisks of living on to those who can not afford any risk and then tellthose people “oh well”. The bank bailouts and theausterity plan is the realization of the reversal of the risk/income-wealth relationship.

Our past economic environment also produced a direct relationshipbetween income-wealth and luck. Again, as income-wealth increased,your success was more dependent on luck and vice versa. This too hasbeen reversed as we see with the Washington revolving door and evergreater capture of the nations wealth as one’s income-wealthincreases. The environment produces an ever stronger assurance thatincome and wealth will increase as they both increase. This isunlike the experience of the middle class including all the highly educatedpeople who find themselves under employed or unemployed do to theshear luck of having chosen wrong. Today the closer you are to zeroon the line of income-wealth, the luckier you need to be.

I’ll leave you with this, the class warfare. There is classwarfare. It has always been with us, since the writing of theConstitution. However, I believe the current theater is the mostdevious the vast majority of the US population has ever faced. Thisis because of the two parties in this seemingly perpetual human quest,one has successfully cloaked themselves in the costume worn of athird party observer effectively immunizing themselves from the pain of the fight via camouflageof a messenger.  I even suspect some aregaining a wee bit of entertainment in their ability to manipulate theircounterparts into fighting among themselves. I speak of the laborclass successfully being divided such that those who labor in theprivate sector of the economy accuses those who labor in the publicsector of the economy for their poor economic position and the publicsector laborer does not recognizing themselves in the private laborworld. I tell you, the false messenger is recognized in that theirlabor is money. It is not in their mind or body. Warren Buffet maywant to be taxed more, but Warren Buffet is not working his money asthe Kock Brothers are working theirs…and Warren Buffet isbenefiting from the productivity of the Kock’s Brother’s money.

Next up is 1936’s tax table.

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More on the Middle East

The NYT reports today of further developments in the Middle East.

Jordan’s Royal Palace says the king has sacked his government in the wake of street protests and has asked an ex-army general to form a new Cabinet.

King Abdullah’s move comes after thousands of Jordanians took to the streets — inspired by the regime ouster in Tunisia and the turmoil in Egypt — and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai who is blamed for a rise in fuel and food prices and slowed political reforms.

The Royal Palace says Rifai’s Cabinet resigned on Tuesday.

Barkley Rosser offers a take off point for the international aspects of the Egyptian turmoil, and a beginning look at the history of the politics/economics of the nation.

Yesterday, Juan Cole posted on Class Conflict in Egypt. As usual, very insightful on the poltical economic foundations of this uprising. He argues that the original base of support for the Nasserist regime that took over in a coup in 1952 was rural land reform, with the rural middle class that got land still the base of the regime. However, over time with urbanization and slow growth and the rise of corruption since Mubarak took over, that base has eroded.

Nasser also gained credibility for throwing out the British and standing up to other outsiders (with the US and Soviets ironically siding with him in the 1956 Suez Crisis against the UK, France, and Israel).

Real wages doubled between 1960 and 1970, when Nasser died, but stagnated after that until 2000, with nearly zero real per capita income growth and a worsening income distribution. Neo-liberal policies, including relaxation of food price controls in the 1990s, did not produce much, although growth did increase after 2000, running at a 5-6% rate. But it has not been enough to provide jobs for the many urban youth, particularly the better educated ones.

Also, since 1980 the regime has been seen as supported by outsiders, particularly the US, Israel, Britain, and France, in contrast to the Nasser period. As economic problems surged with the food price spikes in 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession in the world economy, this made for a weak foundation of support for the regime. We should expect any successor to take a more independent line, especially the moderate El-Baradei who was so badly treated by the US previously.

I must note, however, that while inequality has increased, it is not all that bad compared to many other countries, with Egypt’s current Gini coefficient of 34.0 putting it in 90th place in terms of inequality in the world.

Finally, I note that the chances for Mohamed El-Baradei succeeding Mubarak (eventually anyway) have increased with him receiving the support of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood. However, there are other more radical Islamist groups in Egypt calling for an Islamist state with Shari’a imposed as law, although they appear to be a minority on that side, even though they are more moderate than the expelled Egyptian Islamic Jihad, whose leaders include the #2 and #3 figures in al-Qaeda.

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