Monday, March 28, 2011

Today in inequality reading: 'The sad but true story of wages in America'

The Economic Policy Institute crunches some wage numbers in a new paper:
Recent debates about whether public- or private-sector workers earn more have obscured a larger truth: all workers have suffered from decades of stagnating wages despite large gains in productivity. The current public discussion illogically pits state and local government employees against private workers, when both groups have failed to sufficiently benefit from the economic fruits of their labors. This paper examines trends in the compensation of public (state and local government) and private-sector employees relative to the growth of productivity over the past two decades.

These data underscore that there is a bigger story than public versus private compensation and a more penetrating set of questions to ask than who has more than whom. The ability of the economy to produce more goods and services has not translated into greater compensation for either group of workers. Why has pay fared so poorly overall? Why did the richest 1% of Americans receive 56% of all the income growth between 1989 and 2007, before the recession began (compared with 16% going to the bottom 90% of households)? Why are corporate profits 22% above their pre-recession level while total corporate sector employees’ compensation (reflecting lower employment and meager pay increases) is 3% below pre-recession levels? The answers lie in an economy that is designed to work for the well off and not to produce good jobs and improved living standards.1

Essentially, economic policy has not supported good jobs over the last 30 years or so. Rather, the focus has been on policies that were thought to make consumers better off through lower prices: deregulation of industries, privatization of public services, the weakening of labor standards including the minimum wage, erosion of the social safety net, expanding globalization, and the move toward fewer and weaker unions. These policies have served to erode the bargaining power of most workers, widen wage inequality, and deplete access to good jobs. In the last 10 years even workers with a college degree have failed to see any real wage growth.

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