Median Wage Hovering Near 15-Year Low

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Last year, half of American workers made less than $27,519, about what they made in 1998. Meanwhile, the number of workers making at least $5 million grew nearly 27 percent.

At least half of Americans aren’t doing much better than they were in 1998, according to new data from the Social Security Administration.

The median wage last year was $27,519 — meaning half of Americans made more than that, and half made less. That’s only a few bucks different from the median wage in 2011 and the lowest since 1998, when that figure was $26,984 (in 2012 dollars), Al Jazeera America’s David Cay Johnston says. The calculation includes only pay, not benefits or pensions.

Meanwhile, the average wage improved last year to $42,498 — pulled up by vastly improved wages at the top, Johnston says. The number of workers making at least $5 million grew nearly 27 percent from 2011 to 2012. Two-thirds of American workers made less than the average wage in 2012.

We already knew that the rich have recovered basically everything they lost to the recession, but that was mainly because of improvements in the stock market. The new data show that inequality is expanding even in the workplace itself.

“When a rising share of workers makes less than the average wage, it is another sign that wage increases are taking place only high on the income ladder, not on every rung,” Johnston says.

There’s one bright spot in the data. While there may not be enough well-paying jobs to go around, at least there are more jobs than there were. “The number of people with some work increased by 2.2 million since 2011, to 153.6 million, almost exactly the same increase as the population,” Johnston says. That’s still 2 million fewer people with work than in 2007, though, and the recession isn’t entirely to blame.

“Since 2000 the population has grown by more than 11 percent, but the number of people with jobs increased just 3.7 percent,” Johnston says. “That is, population is growing about three times as fast as jobs are.”

Stacy Johnson

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