The government neglects data about median income, so private researchers sometimes step in to the vacuum to investigate important issues. In 2011, Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project crunched the data to find that
Over the past 40 years, a period in which U.S. GDP per capita more than doubled after adjusting for inflation, the annual earnings of the median prime-aged male have actually fallen by 28 percent. Indeed, males at the middle of the wage distribution now earn about the same as their counterparts in the 1950s!
They are competent researchers, but they are not experts on median income statistics and don’t have the resources to do a perfect job. They published 19 similar reports the same year that they did the median income work. Now Scott Winship has published a skeptical new take on Greenstone and Looney’s work. He did numerous adjustments that can boost the median male earnings over this time period and concluded his essay with his best-case analysis:
The adjustments yield the result that men’s compensation rose by 14 percent between 1969 and 2011. From 1969 to 2007, a peak year, the increase was 20 percent.
Kevin Drum notes that this is still pretty depressing.
I think we can assume this is the most optimistic possible reading of the data. And yet what does it tell us? During a period when real GDP per capita increased 108 percent, men’s median total compensation has gone up only 20 percent. Even if Winship is right, it means that men’s income has been devastated over the past four decades. Given this, arguments over the technical merits of various measurement methods should be entirely secondary. No matter who’s right, the big questions we should be asking ourselves are how this happened, why it happened, and where all the money went. That’s what matters.
To me, the amazing thing is that this discussion is almost completely ignored in the Media and in Washington. The median American deserves more attention. Instead of think-tank staffers crunching numbers in their spare time, there should be official government statistics that track this kind of median income data carefully so that pundits and politicians could track our economic progress better.