The Uncomfortable Bad News Lurking in Latest Census Report

Median income for this demographic actually fell last year, after four decades of stagnation

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 13 Sep 2017 at 7:33 AM

Inside an otherwise-encouraging Census Bureau report on income and poverty Tuesday was a troubling statistic — incomes for working men actually fell a little bit from 2015 to 2016.

The Census Bureau said the decrease in the median income earned by men working full-time from $51,859 to $51,640 was not statistically significant. Still, it put a damper on good news elsewhere in the report, based on the Current Population Survey. The median household income rose 3.2 percent, after an even bigger increase between 2014 and 2015. The poverty rate fell, and most racial groups gained ground.

The earnings gap between men and women shrank for the first time since 2007; women earned 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by men, on average, compared with 79.6 cents in 2015.

But the narrowing gap came in part because men with full-time jobs lost ground.

"For such a long time, the focus has been women, women, women, because it was such a male-dominated society," said Zolton Acs, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at George Mason University. "For years now, it seems like it's gone too far in the other direction."

Acs said Tuesday's data underscore the need to "rebalance" views of the economy.

It is no secret, he explained, that sectors disproportionately populated by men, such as manufacturing, have been battered over the last decade. At the same time, women are much better represented in growth sectors such as health care and education.

"It's actually not that big a puzzle," he said. "The types of jobs that are growing and the types of jobs that are supported are basically the jobs that women do today."

Stagnant Incomes
Median income of full-time year-round workers
YearMenWomen
2016$51.6K$41.6K
2015$51.9K$41.3K
2014$51.1K$40.2K
2013$51.5K$40.4K
2012$51.6K$39.5K
2011$51.5K$39.6K
2010$52.8K$40.6K
200952.7K$40.6K
200851.7K$39.9K
2007$52.2K$40.6K
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

To be sure, a pay gap in favor of men still exists. But many experts said that is so because of other factors, such as men working longer and women leaving the workforce to have and raise children.

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, noted on a conference call with reporters Tuesday that the sagging incomes of working men in 2016 came after moderate gains the previous year.

"So this is somewhat troubling news, and on top of being so many years of stagnant wage growth for men," she said.

Gould noted that median earnings for women employed full-time in 2016 surpassed the previous high before the start of the Great Recession. The narrowing wage gender gap "is a welcome change except for the fact that it is due, in part, to men's earnings' stagnating for so long," she said.

"But I think better across-the-board earnings growth would have made this year's income report unambiguously excellent news, much like we saw in 2015," she added.

Wage stagnation for men is not new. Gould noted that since 1973, the median man working full time, year round, has seen no sustained wage growth.

"The economy has had the potential to increase both men's and women's wages while also closing the gender wage gap," she said. "We did see that happen between 2014 and 2015. We saw a narrowing of the gap, while men's and women's wages did rise."

Gould attributed the relatively robust increase in median household income primarily to an improved employment picture. More people were working in 2016 than in 2015, and more people moved from part-time work to full-time jobs.

If a non-working spouse gets a job or a part-time worker graduates to a full-time position, the family's income rises even if the main income-earner makes the same paycheck.

"And so you have more earners in the household, and that is going to increase household income even if hourly wages or annual earnings haven't moved as much," she said.

Acs, the George Mason professor, said women attend college at higher rates and likely will be better positioned to take advantage of the new economy. He said the opioid drug epidemic and high incarceration rates also diminish the economic prospects of men.

But Acs believes men are coming to grips with the fact that they cannot count on jobs that favor muscle over education and skills.

"There has now been a wake-up call," he said. "It took a long time for this to sink in."

Gould said overall household median income this year should surpass the pre-recession year of 2007.

"We have seen solid growth in jobs this year so far, and we've seen job growth that is in excess of working-age population growth, so we're pulling in some of the workers off the sidelines," she said. "Continuing to do that. We are steadily moving toward full employment."

  1. census-bureau
  2. economy
  3. gender-gap
  4. jobs
  5. wages
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