How can pundits tell us the economy is doing well when so many of us know families who are struggling to keep up? It’s because pundits are paid to look at the entire economy, not how the average family is doing. While it’s true the national economic pie has been growing, over the last 40 years, the average American’s piece has been shrinking.
Most of the economic gains the pundits laud have gone to people in the top 1% income bracket. Since 1980, the top 1% has seen its income grow by 242%, while the average for all others is 67%.
The inequality in wealth is larger now than its been since the 1920s. To put it in perspective, the ratio of CEO pay to that of average workers has skyrocketed — from 22.5 to 1 in 1973 to 258.9 % in 2017, a staggering 1,100% increase.
But that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. While families have been able to keep their incomes slightly above inflation, the cost of housing, health care, transportation, and college have far outpaced what our government calls the inflation rate and the modest increases in family income. There is much less left in the average American’s pocket after paying for necessary expenses than there was in 1975.
Relying upon financial numbers adjusted for inflation — an imperfect tool — gives a basis for understanding just how bad things have become for most of us. Consider that in 1975, the average house cost $209,014 in 2015 dollars. In 2015 itself, the average house cost $270,200, 35% more. Housing prices are projected to rise at twice the rate of family income. Most of us will not keep up with these increases, making it substantially harder to buy a home.
It’s not just housing that has dramatically outpaced family incomes — cars have, too. While an average car in 1975, in inflation-adjusted dollars, cost $16,578, it now costs $31,252.
Health care has increased almost six times the inflation rate since the 1970s, leaving us with even less to spend on housing and other necessities.
Because the price of college and trade schools has far exceeded the inflation rate, there is a good chance student loans take another big bite out of what’s left of the paycheck. In 1972, tuition, room, and board at a private college was 41.5% of an average man’s income. In 2016 it was its 116.7%. The numbers for women: 118.9 percent of average salary in 1972, 183.2% in 2016.
Because so many women are working outside of the home to pay for these larger expenses, child care claims another part.
In 1975 over 88% of American workers had defined benefit pensions. By 2005, that number dropped to 33%. That decline increases pressure on workers to save for the future, and that may take another bite out of the paycheck.
Many pundits claim the low unemployment rate is proof of a roaring economy. Here again, when we drill down, the picture looks very different. Our government defines the unemployment rate as the number of out-of-work people who are looking for work. Those who have been forced to retire, or are working in the gig or underground economy, are not always counted as unemployed. As Markets Insider reports, “the increase in independent contractors may skew unemployment figures because firms can hire contractors without adding them to their payrolls. That way, independent contractors are not counted as “unemployed” despite the fact they don’t work consistent schedules.”
The economy as a whole may be doing well, but for most Americans, basic necessities far outpace increases in income. Working 40 hours a week no longer guarantees enough for a middle-class life.
We are sinking far below our parents’ and grandparents’ standards of living. It is hard to envision how we will be able to help our children pay for college. Many of us face a future without retirement. Forget what pundits are telling us — the economy for the average American family is bad and getting worse. The so-called rising tide of a growing economy can’t lift sinking boats.