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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.