Confusion over Median Hourly Wages

About 64% of all wage earners in the U.S. currently earns less than a welder. But more on that later.

In my quest to determine where I once fit into the grand scheme of things (as it pertains to wages), I've found a lot of conflicting information from the government, the media and our economists. I wanted to know where I was in the income scale—was I near the middle (in the "median" range), where half earned more than I did while the other half earned less? Or was I much worse off than most others, or was I doing a little better than most? I wanted a realistic self-evaluation, and not a false perception.

Here are some poll results as to where people perceived themselves to be:

On Sept. 10, 2013, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that when people were asked about their economic circumstances, only 12 percent of people classified themselves as poor, with 28 percent putting themselves in the working class, 42 percent in the middle class, 16 percent in the upper middle class and 1 percent calling themselves well-to-do.

On Nov. 30, 2012, a USA Today/Gallup poll asked about social class found that 10 percent of people defined themselves as lower class, with 31 percent in the working class, 42 percent in the middle class, 13 percent in the upper middle class and 2 percent in the upper class.

Gallup has been asking the same question for some years and the percentage of people in the lower class has trended up. In 2000, only 3 percent placed themselves in the lower class. At the same time, the percentage of people putting themselves in the middle class has fallen from 48 percent. The other classes are about the same.

I had been trying to determine where I stood: was I earning a "middle-class wage", or just a "median" wage? Was I earning more or less than the exact middle of the actual annual incomes that everybody else was earning?

First, to give you a little background on hours worked and wages earned, let's look at some boring government numbers before I get into my rant further below in this post (or if you don't like numbers, just skip to my rant).

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that "median" weekly earnings of the nation's 104.8 million full-time wage and salary workers were $786 in the fourth quarter of 2013. This would equate to $19.65 an hour for a 40-hour work week. "Median" means 50% earned more and 50% earned less. And below is what the BLS reports for the number of people and the hours they're working:

104,552,000 (35 hours or more)
    6,206,000 (1 to 34 hours) for economic reasons, want full-time work
 20,164,000 (1 to 34 hours) for non-economic reasons, only want part-time work
130,922,000 Total

But...the Social Security Administration (SSA) reports 153,632,290 wage earners*, based on compensation (wages, tips, and the like) subject to Federal income taxes, as reported by employers on W-2 forms. This is 22,710,290 less wage earners than what the BLS reports as people working either full-time or part-time. Why is there a big discrepancy of the number of people working?

I could understand if the BLS numbers were larger than those reported by the SSA, because that could also include the self-employed, etc.

* We can't use the number of individual tax returns from the IRS, because they also include such things as the self-employed and those whose only earnings may be from capital gains income, and not regular hourly wages or salaries. But for the last available data for 2010 from the IRS (Summary of Items for Taxpayers with Form W-2) they show 112,124,516 returns in 2010 — which is still 38,274,280 less wage earners than what the SSA reports for 2010 — and 41,507,774 less than what the SSA reports as wage earners in 2012. So why is there such a large discrepancy between the IRS, the SSA and the BLS?

Also, the SSA reports the "average" wage as $42,498 a year, which would equate to $20.43 an hour for a 40-hour work week (although the SSA statistics also include part-time workers) — and that number is also greatly influenced by higher wage earners at the very top of the income scale. So I need a "median" number to see where I fit into the scheme of things.

This is where the SSA also reports the "median" wage (when 50% of all wage earners take home less and 50% take home more) as $27,519 a year—which would equate to $13.23 an hour.

The SSA reports that 81,691,288 wage earners (53% of all wage earners) earned less than $30,000 a year, so for the sake of argument, we will subtract 26,370,000 for all part-time employees that the BLS reports (and then just assume they include all the minimum wage earners*), leaving 55,321,288 who could be working full-time while earning less than $30,000 a year. That would mean that theoretically, 50% of all full-time workers could earn less than $14.42 an hour before taxes.

But remember, the BLS reported that 104.8 million full-time wage and salary workers had "median" weekly earnings of $786, which would equate to $19.65 an hour for a 40-hour work week (and that's just one discrepancy).

* The BLS reports "Among those paid by the hour, 1.6 million earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. About 2.0 million had wages below the federal minimum" — for a total of 3.6 million workers. [This could include tipped employees in the hotel and restaurant industry—many earning as little as $2.13 an hour.]

Question: Is the Bureau of Labor Statistics saying that 50% of all full-time workers in the U.S. earned at least $19.65 an hour, while everyone else earned less? Or is it actually what the SSA reports: 50% of all wage earners take home $27,519 a year—which would equate to $13.23 an hour for a full-time job in a 40-hour work week?

What is the REAL median hourly pay that people are earning (taking into account wages and salaries, but not investment income or those making money under the table, such as those in the "underground economy") if it were broken down into an hourly pay scale (or even annual wages) for a regular 40-hour week job?

The BLS reported that among men, those age 55 to 64 had the highest median weekly earnings of $1,048. This would equate to $26.20 an hour. When I was 53 years old I worked as a union bartender in a Las Vegas and made between $14 and $16 an hour when I last worked in 2008. Was I really earning so much less than the average American worker?

And now on to my rant...

Besides Myself, is the Media and our Economists also Confused about Real Wages?

Before I was laid off in 2008 (and remained permanently unemployed ever since), I was averaging between $14 and $16 an hour (plus tips) working as a bartender at either a service or front bar in several Las Vegas establishments. That was when I used to work for multi-billionaires.

Because most of the bigger hotels are union, I also had other benefits as well—such as healthcare insurance, paid vacations and holidays—and even free meals in the company cafeteria. At first, I thought I was doing OK for myself.

My highest-ever annual wages reported on my W-2 form was just over $33,000 for the year; but yet, I had been hearing from several sources in the media that Americans were averaging around $40,000 or $50,000 a year.

This greatly depressed me, and it got me to thinking that I was just a dumb loser—no matter how hard I worked or how many hours of over-time I volunteered for, I couldn't even earn an average wage (not even when, on a couple occasions during my working years, I had worked two jobs).

Since I was laid off in 2008 (without ever being rehired again, just because I was unemployed and because I was over 50 years old), with little else to do, I spent many hours every day researching the economy (to discover what, if anything, was wrong with me—and why I couldn't find another job.)

But since 2008, I've learned a lot, and I've discovered that the media had been making me feel much worse than I had already felt.

The Washington Post recently reported in an article titled Why the Economy isn’t Doomed: "Perhaps the most chilling statistic is that median income was the same in 2012 as it was in 1989 — about $51,000 — once inflation is taken into account."

Because of my diligent research over the past 5 years, I suspected right away after reading this that this was just wrong, wrong, wrong.

I noted last year that the Census Bureau reported that "median household income" fell for the fifth straight year in 2012 to $51,017 — and that after being adjusted for inflation, was the lowest annual HOUSEHOLD income since 1995, noting that a great many of these households also had multiple wage earners.

And it's not just the media, but economists too. Recently Paul Krugman (who I greatly admire and agree with most of the time) just wrote: "The median full-time worker in the United States makes about $40,000 a year."

This has to be wrong, wrong, wrong!!! As I posted in a comment to Krugman's post:

The "average" wage is $42,498 a year, but that number is greatly influenced by higher wage earners. The "median" wage (when 50% of all wage earners take home less and 50% take home more) is $27,519 a year. (Source for wage data: Social Security Administration)

Maybe some people are referring to multiple-income "household incomes", and not the average or median income for individuals; but this should be stipulated for better clarification (so people like myself wouldn't feel so bad about their standing in relation to the overall income scale. Currently, if the "median" wage for individuals was really $50,000 a year, we might not be hearing so much about income inequality these days).

It's already bad enough when the cable TV news pundits keeps misinforming their audiences that the average man on the street is making $50,000 a year (which is about what the "median household" income is) because it totally misrepresents what we are all complaining about regarding income inequality—and/or stagnant or low wages.

The article in The Washington Post also makes the argument that rising healthcare costs are also one reason for stagnant wages (as if the employers couldn't bear the extra cost), but then the author doesn't explain the record profits that employers have earned, in spite of any rising costs—meaning, they still could have paid higher wages. Right now corporations are hoarding trillions in cash. (And the author doesn't mention the word "union" anywhere in his article either).

The Washington Post article also makes the argument:

"There are about 30 million Americans over 18 who lack a high school diploma and 142 million over 25 who don’t have a four-year college degree, according to the Census Bureau. If these people were able to add to their skills and take advantage of new technologies, they’d become more productive workers."

These numbers that The Washington Post cites exceeds the entire labor force --- but even so, it still doesn't explain what type or how many jobs could theoretically be created—even if every one of those people held a Ph.D. in some type of STEM science, thereby, as in The Washington Post's words, making them "more productive workers". And besides, the supposed "STEM crisis" has already been thoroughly debunked. And productivity HAS increased over the last 40 years, but yet, wages haven't kept pace. So was The Washington Post claiming that if we doubled the education and skill levels of our workers, we'd also double their production, and thereby doubling their wages? I don't believe that for a moment, do you?

But to their credit, in passing, The Washington Post article had also noted:

"Wages won’t matter much if there’s not enough decent work for people to do. Many economists agree that outsourcing and new technologies in the workplace, while beneficial for consumers overall, have made life difficult for millions of Americans who used to work with their hands or do office work. Companies have replaced factory and clerical workers alike with low-wage laborers abroad or machines at home."

Yes, yes, yes! Offshoring (and H-1B visas) using bad trade deals and union busting to depress wages just to drive up record profits is the NUMBER ONE reason why we have a lack of jobs (and their multiplier effect) and why we have consistently low wages. Technology (for the time being) comes in at a distant 2nd place.

In his article The Washington Post also goes on to say:

"Some worry that Washington’s ability to direct resources toward high-return parts of the economy — such as research and development or education — will be stifled by growing debt, fueled by waves of retiring baby boomers." (Note: Corporations benefit greatly, and profit very much, from taxpayer-paid government research. But just like profits, technology and increased productivity, little has trickled down into average wages for the workers.)

But why did The Washington article mention Baby Boomers as if it was relative to government spending? Was this just another subtle (and subliminal) attack on Social Security when the author says, "Fueled by waves of retiring baby boomers."

While it's true, that there has been a record numbers of Boomers (as I have acknowledged), The Washington Post is convoluting the facts and is misleading readers by reporting on the "cause and correlation" of retirees as it relates to the debt and the budget. What about defense spending?

I have already determined (to my satisfaction, at least) that's it's mostly a lack of young "non-starters" into the labor force (high school and college graduates) and the uncounted discouraged workers (who are mostly prime-age workers) who make up most of the recent decline in the labor force. That's because birth rates are currently historically low while high school graduates are at record highs—so for the time being, using a job growth-to-population growth ratio is not an accurate way of gauging healthy job creation.

So those who are already within the population are graduating from high school at a faster pace than births, and more so than those who are retiring (now at record highs) or going on disability (which recently has actually declined, and only makes a tiny annual increase in the declining labor force). That leaves us with millions unemployed Americans who can't find jobs and have not been able to contribute to the tax base. So this has nothing to do with the demographics being "fueled by waves of retiring baby boomers."

And when The Washington Post refers to "Washington’s ability to direct resources toward high-return parts of the economy", they never mentioned the other reasons as being a record low "effective" tax rate on corporate earnings and a near-record low tax rate on capital gains—as well as a slew of offshore tax havens and the rampant tax evasion being committed by the top 0.01% (Yes, it's rich people who primarily dodge taxes—almost everybody else has all their federal, state and FICA taxes automatically deducted from their measly paychecks).

And speaking of measly paychecks, according to the Social Security Administration:

  • 73% of all wage earners in the U.S. earned less than $50,000 a year (so this is not what most Americans earn)
  • 66% took home less than the "average wage" of $42,498 a year.
  • 59% earned less than what I used to earn—between $30,000 and $35,000 a year (So now I don't feel so bad anymore because, although I wasn't earning an "average" wage, at least I was earning more than the "median" wage.)
  • But 40% earned less than $20,000 a year—almost 61 million people. This sucks big time. Even the new federal minimum wage of $10.10 an hour for workers under government contract is only $21,008 a year before taxes (and that's only if they work 40 hours a week every week).
  • 166 people reported earning over $50 million a year (and many probably paid their employees the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and complained that even that was too much—and that these "takers" should be taxed more, putting more "skin in the game"—because for many of these multi-billionaires, it is just a game to them (such as, who holds a title on the Forbes Fortune 400 list; who has the biggest yacht, or who has the biggest beachfront mansion.)

And when The Washington Post goes on to say, "The debt has become more manageable because lawmakers and the White House have raised taxes and cut spending" — that's not entirely true either.

While it's true that government spending is down greatly, thanks in part to the massive layoffs of government workers, taxes didn't really go up. The Bush tax cuts (after being extended for two years) and the temporary reduction of payroll taxes, had just expired—as planned. Nobody raised taxes.

But taxes NEED to go up—such as taxing capital gains at the same rate as regular wages, and taxing capital gains for Social Security, and raising (or eliminating) the "cap" on Social Security taxes—so that memebers of Congress will also have to pay this tax on 100% of their earnings, just like 95% of the labor force currently does. And what about all those tax loopholes and government subsidies that mega-profitable corporations get?

And then The Washington Post closes their article with this B.S.:

From looming demographic changes [HALF TRUE] to the economic threats posed by advanced technology [TRUE], we should be realistic about the challenges we face. [TRUE] But there are also reasons to believe that the next generation will prosper. [FALSE] There’s probably nothing that forces middle-class wages to rise faster than competition among companies for better-educated workers who are able to use more sophisticated technology. [HALF TRUE] And while we have recently suffered through an age of growing apart, the forthcoming era could well be one of growing together. [FALSE.]

Other developed nations have aging populations and don't have the same level of income inequality that the U.S. is currently experiencing. Offshoring jobs for lower wages and H-1B visas oppresses domestic wages, thanks in part, to bad trade deals. And Obama wants more of the same with fast-tracking the TPP trade agreement. Companies aren't necessarily competing for better-educated workers—the myth that Americans lack skills has been thoroughly debunked. It is highly unlikely that "the forthcoming era could well be one of growing together", not with the current and foreseeable policies and laws we have, because of the politicians we have running this country. There is no real reason to believe next generation will prosper, not with money in politics, more automation, robotics and computers displacing more workers—and not until we have any meaningful tax reform. I'm not being pessimistic, I'm just being "realistic about the challenges we face".

And articles like this (from the new libertarian Washington Post that's been misinforming the general public ever since Ezra Klein had left) hasn't been helping the situation very much either.

As an aside: Below is a video of a wealthy investor named Nick Hanauer who is being interviewed on MSNBC discussing income inequality with Chris Hayes on Feb. 13, 2014. Nick gives us some fascinating insights about those in the very top 0.01% of the income ladder (and why we have such crappy wages). Here are a few excerpts:

"Ultimately, this is not about money—it's about status, privileges and power. For a subset of these people, the most important thing in the world is status, privilege and power. They have sacrificed everything for it. This is my world—I know a lot of these folks—and a lot of these folks are border-line sociopathic people, and they don't care about other people."

On a final note: In 1973 I belonged to a union and worked as a welder earning about $7.25 an hour. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator, that would equate to $38.04 an hour today. But the BLS says that today a welder earns an average of $17.45 per hour, or $36,300 per year. According to the SSA, about 64% of all wage earners in the U.S. currently earns less than a welder.



SSA vs. BLS vs. Census on median wage

The BLS is a survey as is the Census. The SSA obtains their data from large aggregate tax filings, wage earnings statements, IRS. If one notices in a W2 paystub, you'll see FICA, Social security contributions.

The SSA determines benefits based on lifetime wage earnings, so that is where their statistics come from.

I personally prefer the SSA data since it is directly from wage data vs. a survey reported from people, or from employers.

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Ssa data

The ssa data includes all wage earners, this is very different than full time workers. The ssa data includes even people who work for only a day or a few weeks. The bls data is clear, full time, full year workers average about 41k (45k for men, 37k for women).

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