Politics In Real Life: What Wage Stagnation Looks Like For Many Americans

May 5, 2016
Originally published on May 6, 2016 9:29 am

When Jennifer Kaiser's mother was her age, a lot of the women she knew were stay-at-home moms who could maintain a solid standard of living without taking outside work. These days, that's pretty much an unaffordable luxury.

"For me and a majority of the people I know it's a paycheck-to-paycheck society. That's the way it is and it stinks," said Kaiser, a 44-year-old legal assistant at a downtown Indianapolis law firm.

It's not that Kaiser doesn't enjoy her job, which pays a decent salary after 10 years and even provides small raises every year. But like many millions of Americans, she finds that the raises she gets are pretty much eaten up by rising expenses, leaving her with a standard of living that's essentially flat.

"I get a raise, but every year it's lower and lower. The past few years, it hasn't even been a raise that's comparable to the cost of living. So it makes it hard," she said.

In Kaiser's case, the recent illness and death of her mechanic husband left her with steep medical bills that she said she can't pay. The house where the couple lived with their two children is now being foreclosed upon.

Her troubles underscore a brutal reality in the age of wage stagnation: When people who live paycheck-to-paycheck hit a bump in the road, it can quickly send their finances into turmoil.

"I always prided myself on being that person that would do whatever to dig myself out, but I find myself in a position where I'll be digging forever," she said. "I feel like I'm in this hole, and every time I get up, a little bit more gets thrown in."

The issue of wage stagnation could end up playing a dominant role in this year's presidential election for the first time, according to Larry Mishel, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank.

Wages and benefits have essentially flatlined or declined for four out of five Americans between 2007 and 2014, and except for a few years in the 1990s, they weren't rising all that fast before that, Mishel noted.

For 25 years after World War II, U.S. productivity and the compensation paid to workers rose at essentially the same rate. After about 1973, the two diverged, and in recent years wages have risen much more slowly, especially compared to corporate profits.

"There's been a series of decisions that basically all work to undercut the ability of the typical worker to get a better deal from his or her boss," Mishel said.

Among the policy changes responsible for this divergence are the gradual erosion of unions, the failure of Congress to raise the minimum wage and a weakening of overtime protections for many workers, he added.

Globalization has also played a part, forcing U.S. employees to compete with workers in low-wage countries who are willing to work for far less. While joblessness has fallen, the economy is still far from full employment, which means workers have less power to bargain for higher pay, Mishel noted.

Meanwhile, higher health care costs mean employers have less money to put into wage increases, even if they want to.

"Firms are beseiged by pressure from global competition and from other employers. They don't want to step out and provide higher wages until they have to," Mishel said.

These changes have been taking place for years. What's different this year is the extent to which the major presidential candidates are talking about them.

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has made stagnant wages a central plank in his campaign and has called for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage. His opponent Hillary Clinton proposes raising it to $12, but she says states with a higher cost of living should raise it above that.

Sanders has also proposed changes, such as free public college tuition, that would increase people's standard of living, if not their wages.

The de facto Republican nominee, Donald Trump, says poorly executed trade deals with countries such as China and Mexico have placed U.S. workers at a disadvantage and promises to renegotiate them. He argues that would lead to more domestic jobs, which would mean a tighter labor market and higher wages.

"Basically, candidates across the political spectrum have invoked wage stagnation as a key economic challenge, but the debates we've seen have not dug into the details," Mishel said.

He predicts that with the approach of the general election, the two parties will be forced to differentiate themselves with more specific ideas.

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We're now going to spend a few minutes talking about an issue that's already playing a big part in this year's presidential campaign - how this economy feels. Because even though a lot of economic indicators suggest the country is on an upswing, a lot of people feel like the recovery isn't helping them. Wages haven't gone up, and some feel like their standard of living has flatlined or even declined. To talk more about this, I'm joined by NPR's Jim Zarroli. He covers economics, and he's been looking into all this. Hi, Jim.


MARTIN: We hear time and again how people don't feel like they're a part of this recovery. How much of that sentiment has to do with the fact that wages haven't gone up?

ZARROLI: I think a very big part of it. Wage stagnation is really one of the central issues of our time, I think. Many Americans feel like they're not keeping up. They feel like they're not doing better than their parents did, also that their children won't do as well as they're doing.

There are lots and lots of example - really, millions of examples of this. But I'll tell you about a woman I met last week in downtown Indianapolis. Her name is Jennifer Kaiser, and she is 44. She was on her lunch hour. She works as a legal assistant at a law firm. And she has had this job for 10 years, and she's very happy there.

JENNIFER KAISER: I love my job (laughter). I really love my job. I just wish I made more (laughter).

ZARROLI: Now, Kaiser says she makes a decent salary. She and her husband were able to buy a house in Indianapolis. And for a long time, they took, you know, the occasional cheap vacation with their two kids. But Kaiser says her salary really hasn't gone up over the years.

KAISER: I get a raise, but every year it's lower and lower. The past few years, it hasn't even been a raise that's comparable to the cost of living. So it makes it hard.

ZARROLI: Now, there's one thing I should point out. Jennifer Kaiser's husband died very recently. He was a mechanic. When he got sick, he lost his job. He left some steep medical bills. And she, Jennifer Kaiser, doesn't know how she's going to pay them. She actually says she's losing her house. So it wasn't easy before, but it is a lot worse now.

Now, this story isn't typical, in the sense that her husband died fairly young. But what it does underscore is the fact that, you know, when you live paycheck-to-paycheck and something unexpected happens, it can really be devastating.

MARTIN: Yeah, you don't have a buffer. And so even though she suffered this loss, she's still in the same boat as a lot of Americans. The money coming in just isn't enough to meet the demands and the bills and the money that has to go out.

ZARROLI: Right. I mean, even before her husband died, she was learning to cut back. I mean, she's very careful with money. She doesn't take trips anymore. You know, she takes public transportation to work. She doesn't have a lot of credit card bills. But at the same time, the bills that she has to pay have been rising.

KAISER: My insurance is going up. My groceries are going up. And my utilities are going up. Yet, I'm really not bringing in the money to be even with all of that, so it's not easy.

ZARROLI: One of the things she told me is she has a good retirement plan at work, but she's not putting as much money into it as she would like to because she has to concentrate on, you know, paying the bills that she has to pay now.

MARTIN: Yeah. So how typical is Jennifer Kaiser's story?

ZARROLI: Well, she says it isn't unusual at all.

KAISER: For me and a majority of the people I know, it's a paycheck-to-paycheck society. It just - that's what it is, and it stinks. You know, when my mom was my age, you know, she knew lots of women that were stay-at-home mothers. I don't - I can count on one hand how many people I know because you can't afford to do that.

MARTIN: So that's one example of how wage stagnation can affect someone at the micro level, right? What evidence is out there, Jim, that shows how broad this is?

ZARROLI: There's a lot of statistical evidence about this. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says wages and compensation for the bottom four fifths of workers were essentially flat between 2007 and 2014. And if you go back further than that, decades even, you can see that, you know, wages have been growing, but not very much. And since the financial crisis, they've pretty much been flat.

MARTIN: So here's a big question. How come?

ZARROLI: Well, this is a long-term trend. And like a lot of long-term trends, it's got a number of complex causes. I spoke to Larry Mishel who's a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute which is a prolabor think tank. Here's what he says.

LARRY MISHEL: There's been a series of decisions that basically all work to undercut the ability of a typical worker to be able to get a better deal from his or her boss.

ZARROLI: Now, he would say, you know, the weakening of labor unions is a factor, the failure to raise the federal minimum wage. And then a big factor is health care costs. You know, they've gone up a lot, so employers have found themselves paying more for insurance and other benefits which means they've been less inclined to raise wages. Here's Larry Mishel again.

MISHEL: You know, firms are besieged by pressure from global competition and from other employers. They don't want to step out and provide higher wages until they have to.

ZARROLI: Now, it's important to remember here that the United States is not the only place where this is happening. Wage stagnation is happening in other highly developed economies in Europe and Japan. And this suggests that, you know, there are structural factors tied, perhaps to globalization, that are keeping wages from going up.

MARTIN: Which, of course, plays right into what some of the candidates have been saying on the campaign trail.

ZARROLI: Well, they're talking about it a lot. I mean, this could really be the first election where this issue actually plays a dominant role. It's a big part of Donald Trump's rhetoric. You know, he says people are falling behind, jobs are leaving. It's also a really big part of Bernie Sanders's campaign. You could almost say it's the centerpiece.

Now, when you get to real policy ideas, there aren't a lot of specifics. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton want to raise the federal minimum wage. But, you know, there's no silver bullet that's going to solve this. This is something that's really been happening gradually over decades. And it reflects a lot of big changes in the economy. And it will probably take a lot of slow, gradual changes in policy to address it. And that's going to be, you know, a steep mountain for any president to try to climb.

MARTIN: NPR's Jim Zarroli - thanks so much, Jim.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.