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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.