One of the most illuminating publications of the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the Current Population Survey, "a national monthly survey of approximately 60,000 households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics." I have just been looking at the annual summary for 2009, the most recent set of tables now available. In the past, I have written impressionistically about America becoming a "banana republic." I should like to supplement those remarks with some data drawn from the tables. I find these data extremely illuminating, and perhaps you will as well.
The first datum that jumped out at me was the total number of full-time wage and salary workers sixteen years or older, in 2009. The number comes in just a tad under one hundred million -- 99,820,000, to be precise. This is, when you think about it very low for a country of three hundred million. Even when you subtract those under sixteen, those sixteen or older who are in school, those retired, and also -- an important group -- those who are self-employed in one way or another, it still always surprises me that only a third of the total population consists of full-time workers being paid wages or salaries [the distinction is whether a worker is paid by the hour or gets an annual salary].
The median weekly earnings for this one hundred million were $739, which, assuming a fifty week work year, comes to $36,950. The crucial word in the last sentence is "median." It means that half of all those employed full-time -- fifty million, or so -- earned $36,590 OR LESS, and the other fifty million earned $36,590 or more. The mean, or average, weekly earnings, annualized, are roughly ten thousand dollars more, because the high end includes people making simply enormous salaries. I say "annualized" because, of course, there is no guarantee that all of the workers full time employed when the survey is taken are able to sustain fifty weeks of full time employment in that year.
As you would expect, when the figures are broken down by age, by gender, and by race, we see wide variations. The median for those 16 to 19 is $344; for those 55 to 64, it is $841. The median for all white workers is $757, for Hispanic workers, $541, barely 70%. The 13.6 million workers who are members of unions have median weekly earnings of $908. The 84,9 million not represented by unions have median earnings of $710, more than 20% less. Men as a whole have median earnings of $819, women of $657. And so on.
When these statistics are discussed, attention is usually focused on the racial and gender disparities, and with good reason. But I want in this brief discussion to talk a bit about what is revealed by that term, "median." Since half of all workers were making less, on an annualized basis, than $36,950, it seems to make a certain intuitive sense to call that a "middle class annual wage or salary," and yet virtually everything said by politicians, media commentators, economists, and others treats $75,000 or $100,000 as a "middle class" income. In 2009, to find workers who, on an annualized basis, earned in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year, one must look to the top tenth [the tenth decile] of all workers.
To be sure, these are not figures for household income, which one would expect to be rather larger as a result of households sending two or even more wage earners into the labor market. So it is. In 2009, median household income in the United States was $49,777. But that is still half of the $100,000 that the media routinely treats as "middle class."
The simple fact is that America is a good deal poorer than is commonly supposed. Because we are a nation of more than three hundred million, even the top tenth has thirty million people in it, so it is very easy for the media -- and for economists as well -- to treat that small fraction of the total population as the norm. Then too, the more money people have, the more space they take up, what with housing, second homes, acreage around their larger homes, and the like. So casual visual evidence seems to support the illusion that $100,000 buys a family an average, or "middle class," existence.
The Current Population Survey is an enormous document, and one can fruitfully spend a great deal of time paging through it and making little calculations. How many Black dentists are there in the United States? What percentage of Hispanic women have college degrees? What is the range of salaries earned by people doing "managerial" jobs? If you are weary of endless political commentary devoid of factual content, I recommend spending a few hours with it.
Thus URL should get you started: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2009.pdf