Economy & Business

Pay Hasn’t Stagnated for Fifty Years

“Real average hourly wages have not increased for fifty years.” That arresting claim appears in an essay by Matthew Schmitz in the latest issue of First Things. And you can find some support for that reading of the data. The Pew Research Center reports that the average wage in 1964, in 2014 dollars, was $19.18. In 2014, it was $20.67. If that’s right, then something has gone really wrong with our economy, and the political upheavals we have been through look small and long-delayed.

But there are two reasons not to take this apparent stagnation at face value. First, it ignores the growth in non-wage compensation, such as health benefits. Wages have shrunk as a percentage of total compensation. (Pew mentions this issue.) Maybe the balance between wages and benefits has gotten out of whack, as I believe, but that’s a different problem, demanding different responses, than stagnation in total compensation would be.

Second, it is based on the wrong measure of inflation. Figure 2 in this report by Scott Winship gives us more relevant information: the growth in compensation for the median male worker since 1967, properly adjusted for inflation. He finds that figure has risen by 31 percent. Presumably including women in the figures would make the growth trend look even better.

Whatever other concerns we should have about our economic system, it does not seem to have yielded stagnant pay for five decades.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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