2/ Punchline: Popular perception is correct. In 1985, the typical male worker could cover a family of four's major expenditures (housing, health care, transportation, education) on 30 weeks of salary. By 2018 it took 53 weeks. Which is a problem, there being 52 weeks in a year. pic.twitter.com/dPxmqNffOm
— Oren Cass (@oren_cass) February 20, 2020
Oren Cass’s chart, part of a report on his new Cost-of-Thriving Index, purports to show that the typical male worker has a much harder time supporting his family than he had three decades ago. Indeed, according to the chart, the typical male worker could work every week of the year and not afford what Cass — executive director of American Compass — presents as some of the basics.
Cass’s analysis has some flaws. Robert VerBruggen, in an essay on the homepage describing “Oren Cass’s Chart of Doom,” does a good job discussing them. Over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias does as well, finding Cass guilty of “chart crime.” And on Twitter, Scott Winship has documented some of the flaws he has found.
I describe some of the shortcomings of Cass’s analysis in my latest Bloomberg column as well. But I also attempt to zoom out and address the broader questions. Have price increases overwhelmed the wage gains of male workers? Does it take two incomes to afford a middle-class life? My answers: No, and no.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that from 1990 to 2019 the median male worker’s wages grew by 23%. The bottom 10% of male workers saw their wages increase by 36% over this period. Male workers in the 20th percentile — those who earn more than the bottom 19% but less than the top 80% — had 30% wage growth.
All these figures are adjusted for inflation. That is, they account for increases in the prices of housing, health care, education and transportation — Cass’s four categories — but also for the prices of many other goods and services.
Relying in part on a report for the Institute for Family Studies written by VerBruggen and Wendy Wang, I conclude that it is perfectly possible to finance a middle-class life on one income. Of married husbands who have kids and who earn between $50K–99K, about 25 percent have stay-at-home wives. For married husbands who earn between $100K–249K, that figure is 31 percent.
Check out my column for my full argument. Your comments, as always, are very welcome.