Income growth in 2016 is strong, but not as strong as 2015 and more uneven // Economic Policy Institute Blog
Today's report from the Census Bureau shows strong across-the-board improvements to household incomes in 2016. Household incomes rose 3.2 percent, after an impressive 5.2 percent gain in 2015; non-elderly households saw a similar rise of 3.6 percent this year after gaining 4.6 percent the year before. However, inflation-adjusted full-time annual earnings for men fell slightly in 2016, 0.4 percent, while women working full time saw an earnings increase of 0.7 percent. Men's earnings are still below their 2007 level (by 1.1 percent points), while women's earnings are now 2.3 percent above. Better across-the-board earnings growth would have made this year's income report unambiguously excellent news, much like the 2015 report. This year's report is mostly encouraging, but wages need to make strong and sustained gains before we can rest easy about how the economy is working for typical American households.
While the gains in household income are not as impressive as the previous year, they nonetheless represent significant improvements. Part of this year's slowdown in income growth relative to 2015 simply represents a small inflation bounce back. In 2015, plunging energy prices led to essentially zero inflation. In 2016, inflation rebounded to a still-low 1.3 percent. Besides representing a small slowdown in the pace of income growth, this year's report reminds us that the vast majority of household incomes (when corrected for a break in the data series in 2013) have still not fully recovered from the deep losses suffered in the Great Recession—the bottom 80 percent of households had incomes in 2016 just at or below those of 2007 (while those in the top five percent are now 8.7 percent ahead). One more year of modest growth will likely bring the broad middle class back to pre-recession incomes.
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