Our country has suffered from rising income inequality and chronically slow growth in the living standards of low- and moderate-income Americans. This disappointing living-standards growth—which was in fact caused by rising income inequality—preceded the Great Recession and continues to this day. Fortunately, income inequality and middle-class living standards are now squarely on the political agenda. But despite their increasing salience, these issues are too often discussed in abstract terms. Ignored is the easy-to-understand root of rising income inequality, slow living-standards growth, and a host of other key economic challenges: the near stagnation of hourly wage growth for the vast majority of American workers over the past generation. Countering that by generating broad-based wage growth is our core economic policy challenge.
With a group of simple charts, this paper brings the challenge we face into sharp focus, and lends clarity to the steps we must take to meet it.
It should not be surprising that trends in hourly wage growth have profound consequences for American living standards. After all, the vast majority of Americans rely on their paychecks to make ends meet. For these families, the bulk of income comes from wages and employer-provided benefits, followed by other income sources linked to jobs, such as wage-based tax credits, pensions, and social insurance. Wage-related income also accounts for the majority of total income among the bottom fifth of households.