Report | Unions and Labor Standards

The sad but true story of wages in America

Issue Brief #297

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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.

This paper finds:

• U.S. productivity grew by 62.5% from 1989 to 2010, far more than real hourly wages for both private-sector and state/local government workers, which grew 12% in the same period. Real hourly compensation grew a bit more (20.5% for state/local workers and 17.9% for private-sector workers) but still lagged far behind productivity growth.

• Wage stagnation has hit high school–educated workers harder than college graduates, although both groups have suffered—and a bit more so in the public sector. For example, from 1989 to 2010, real wages for high school-educated workers in the private sector grew by just 4.8%, compared with 2.6% in state government. During the same period, real wages for college graduates in the private sector grew 19.4%, compared with 9.5% in state government.

• The typical worker has had stagnating wages for a long time, despite enjoying some wage growth during the economic recovery of the late 1990s. While productivity grew 80% between 1979 and 2009, the hourly wage of the median worker grew by only 10.1%, with all of this wage growth occurring from 1996 to 2002, reflecting the strong economic recovery of the late 1990s.

• The fading momentum of the 1990s recovery failed to propel real wage gains for college graduates employed by private-sector firms or states from 2002 to 2010, despite productivity growth of 20.2% over the same period.

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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