Wage stagnation in the US: more than meets the eye

If you can, always look below the surface of data.

Via the Economist journalist Daniel Knowles comes a good example of why its important to look below the surface of statistics. American economist Steve Landsburg addresses a commonly heard refrain – that the wage of the median worker has barely risen in the past thirty years – and shows that all is not as it seems.

Landsburg cites a book by economist Edward Conard (first chapter, containing what we're talking about, here), which itself cites the Census Bureau. I confess that, without a more specific citation, I can't find the exact data Conard uses, but have found similar enough data (pdf, table A-5) to confirm the overall thrust of the argument.

Conard shows that from 1980 to 2005, median income in the US rose just 3 per cent once inflation is taken into account, from $25,000 to $25,700. 2005 is pre-crash, as well, so this isn't a tale of the recession.

But when you break the data down by race and gender, a very different story appears:

  1980 Median 2005 Median Increase
All Workers 25,000 25,700 3%
White Men 30,700 35,200 15%
Nonwhite Men 19,300 22,300 16%
White Women 11,200 19,600 75%
Nonwhite Women 10,200 16,500 62%

For every single demographic group, there was a much bigger increase in the median wage than we see when the groups are combined. The reason for this is obvious when it's pointed out: demographic change in the US means that there are far more (low-salaried) women and people of colour working now than there were in 2005, which pushes the overall average down.

Landsburg illustrates it with a farmyard analogy:

Imagine a farmer with a few 100-pound goats and a bunch of 1000-pound cows. His median animal weighs 1000 pounds. A few years later, he’s acquired a whole lot more goats, all of which have grown to 200 pounds, while his cows have all grown to 2000. Now his median animal weighs 200 pounds.

A very silly person could point out to this farmer that his median animal seems to be a lot scrawnier these days. The farmer might well reply that both his goats and his cows seem to be doing just fine, at least relative to where they were.

This is almost an example of Simpson's Paradox, a well-known (to stats nerds) effect where the direction of a correlation disappears when that correlation is disaggregated. I was taught it with an example involving racial discrepancies in application of the death penalty:

Sixty per cent of white murderers are executed for their crimes, and fifty per cent of black murderers. Are black people discriminated against in the application of the death penalty?

Now suppose that we break down the murder victims by race as well. We find the common pattern that people tend to attack victims of their own race:

Number of murders where death penalty is applied

White Murderer Black Murderer
White Victim 50/70=71% 25/30=83%
Black Victim 10/30=33% 25/70=36%

What about now? Does it begin to look like black people are discriminated against? In this example, black people are more likely to be executed for the murder of black or white victims; but because the murder of black victims isn't taken as seriously by the courts, the fact that murderers predominantly attack people of their race makes it look like black people are less likely to be executed than white people.

The median income example isn't quite a case of Simpson's Paradox, because there is still a positive increase in wage whether or not the statistics are disaggregated. But it's still an example of a time when it is best to dig beneath the surface.

But there is more to be said on the story of wage stagnation. Because a second claim normally accompanies the belief that US wages have stagnated, and that is that there has been a "decoupling" of wages. Due to rising inequality, the median household wage hasn't risen as fast as the mean wage:

If we've seen that the median wage grows faster when disaggregated, then the solid red line is likely to take a steeper ascent. But what happens to the dashed red line when disaggregated?

Sadly, I cannot find the data required to answer the question. If anyone knows where to look, tell me, and maybe we can put the issue to rest.

An immigrant worker protests in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Female genital mutilation is not just a women’s issue, it’s a human issue

A new play explores how two women react when their daughters' friend is subjected to FGM.

Alice Denny was born into a body that didn’t feel like hers. There is no one ‘right’ way to live and no one should have to hide who they really are.  For years, she accepted the guise before eventually making the transition she deserved.

“A life and body to finally match my mind,” she says softly, quoting one of her own poems to me. “I know, it’s silly,” she adds in a fluster, but Alice needn’t be so modest. In fact, she should be very proud.

We’re at The Joker, an offbeat bar in Brighton, and Alice explains how the realisation of her womanhood inspired her to take up a leading role in CUT, a community play highlighting the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM), which premieres in Brighton next week.

“For anything to stop women from being women, I find so upsetting,” Alice tells me with a communicable heartbreak in her voice.

FGM involves the removal of a woman’s clitoris, inner-and-outer lips of the vagina, and the sewing or stapling together of the two sides of the vulva leaving only a small hole to pass urine and menstruate – depending on the variation. Typically, FGM is carried out with a razor blade on girls between the ages of four and 15, often without any anaesthetic.

This misguided practice, fed by some faux-rationale about raising girls properly, is most common among cultural and religious groups in Africa and the Middle East with the World Health Organisation estimating around 125 million cases across the globe. Many of these communities believe FGM will serve to limit a woman’s libido, discourage sexual promiscuity and strengthen the institute of marriage.

“It’s brutal and makes me almost ashamed to be a human being,” Alice states emphatically.

Of course, to take solace in the fact FGM is not as common in Britain, where it is illegal, is to cataclysmically miss the point. It shouldn’t happen anywhere or to anyone. As it is, an approximate 137,000 women in Britain are affected by FGM, but even that number could be more given the ‘hidden’ nature of the crime.

Daughters of some first-generation immigrants and asylum seekers can be at a particular risk, with these girls taken to their countries of origin against their will during the school holidays for the procedure, allowing them time to ‘heal’ before their return. In reality, the lasting effects both physical and psychological never cease completely.

It is a terrifying thought and one that the incisive CUT, written by Suchitra Chatterjee and Susi Mawell-Stewart, explores. The play chronicles the lives of two women, Brona and Kiva, neighbours forced to face up to the problem of FGM on their doorstep when a shared African friend of their daughters is about to be sent away to be mutilated. Parent of two Alice stars as Brona, while Norma Dixit portrays Kiva. 

So what does CUT hope to achieve?  “It’s about trying to break the conspiracy of silence surrounding this issue,” an impassioned Alice reveals.

The former psychiatric nurse continues: “FGM isn’t something that’s isolated to one place or one group of people. It’s a wider feminist issue, a human issue, which needs to be addressed collectively. The play is about raising awareness, a vehicle to say to women to make the world a better place for each other.

“Women matter, never mind culture, never mind traditions of people being subjugated. We matter and we can make our lives what we want them to be. I’ve made my life what I want it to be and I feel so happy about that.

“People who say ‘it’s nothing to do with us,’ of course it is. It’s brutalizing women. I would love people to say, ‘actually I do know something that’s going on and I will go to the police and they will listen to me.’ I want people to be energized and make it their business.”

Admittedly, CUT, directed by Rikki Tarascas, is not for the faint hearted and will no doubt leave the audience shocked in their seats. Then again, that’s the idea.

CUT will premiere at the BrightHelm Community Centre in Brighton on May 10 and features a pre-show event with speeches from, among others, Khadijah Kamara, an FGM survivor and Heather Knott, a former Soroptomist International UK committee member.