Apr 19, 2024

Friday mailbag edition.

Friday mailbag edition.
Photo by Zeke Tucker / Unsplash

We get into our backlog of reader questions and cover a lot of ground.

Every now and again, we have so many reader questions in the backlog that we decide to devote a full edition to address them. Today is one of those days.

I love reader mailbag editions because they give us a chance to cover a variety of topics in one newsletter. It can also be fun to answer questions that are a little more personal, or a little outside our standard U.S. politics realm (we love those kinds of questions, so don’t be shy!).

In today’s edition, we’ll be tackling a wide range of topics and doing something new: Splitting up some of the answers. You’ll notice that some of today’s questions are answered by Ari, some by Will, and even one by Magdalena. 

We hope you enjoy this edition, and don’t forget you can always ask us a question by replying to an email or filling out this form.  

Q: I don't think the claim in the 32-hour work week piece that "inflation-adjusted income has decreased" is anywhere close to accurate.

From 1955 to 2022, real median family income increased from $39,790 to $92,750 in 2022 dollars (i.e. inflation-adjusted). This is a huge increase. (Note that that's family; it's hard to find individual income data that spans the entire period.)

The sources linked in Tangle do not seem to support the claim either:

  • "Average inflation-adjusted income has decreased" - the first link is to an inflation calculator, and the second is to a FRED graph that only goes back to 2006, but shows that Hourly Earnings have gone from 20.05 to 34.57 in the past 18 years. This increase of 72% is higher than the cumulative inflation of the past 18 years of 56%. Earnings have increased substantially in real terms in the last 18 years. Why is Tangle citing this data in a claim that income has decreased?
  • The Census bureau data (digging through the PDF) indicates 1955 median income of $2,323 when looking at all workers; this would be $27,216 in 2024 dollars. Wages are clearly much higher than that today (household income is $92K). 

I don't know where this idea came from, but it doesn't seem close to true.

— MIke from Washington

Tangle: (Ari, Managing Editor): I’m the one who included this analysis in the newsletter. I’ll be blunt: You’re right, I was wrong, and I have some crow to eat.

As you said, finding inflation-adjusted average annual earnings for an individual in one source is challenging, which is why I tried to derive them from multiple sources. I used a three-step process to make the comparison, but included two separate significant (and pretty embarrassing) errors in that process. I've shown, and corrected, my work below.

Step 1: Get the average income in 1955. The figure I found from the 1955 census was $3,400, and it was simply the wrong statistic. $3,400 was the median income for men, but women were earning meaningfully less and should have been included as members of the workforce. The statistic for the entire workforce, as reported in that census document (and as you found), was $2,323.

Step 2: Correct for inflation. Using that calculator and working from the $3,400 figure, we get $39,833 in 2024 dollars. If we instead work off of your more accurate figure of $2,323, we do indeed get $27,216.

Step 3: Compare it to current earnings. This is where I made my largest blunder. The FRED data indicates the average hourly earnings for all employees today is $34.69. This is embarrassing, but I made the comparison as if that were an annual figure — $34,690. Even if I’d used the right number from earlier, $27,216, this incorrect figure is still larger; but it isn't the right number. It isn't even close. If you convert the $34.69 hourly wage to an annual salary, the right number is $72,155.

You are right. The claim that the average worker makes less than they did in 1955 is not, as you said, "close to true." The only saving grace for the claim from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is that his team clarified they were talking about inflation-adjusted pay for nonsupervisory production jobs, which is a whole other ball of wax. And a whole new opportunity to wade into a complicated comparison and risk being wrong, which I’ll politely decline.

So thank you for catching this, and for holding Tangle (and me) to account.

Q: In your piece on Elon Musk you don’t mention the most convincing thing he has said — that the census counts illegal immigrants, which ultimately changes the apportionment of the House and gives Democrats an advantage.

— Tim from Arizona