Is There Wage Stagnation?

By:  Walter E. Williams
Is There Wage Stagnation?

Many economists, politicians and pundits assert that median wages have stagnated since the 1970s. But is that true?

That's a call for government to do something about it. But before we look at the error in their assertion, let's work through an example that might shed a bit of light on the issue.

Suppose that you paid me a straight $20 an hour in 2004. Ten years later, I'm still earning $20 an hour, but in addition, now I'm receiving job perks such as health insurance, an employer-matched 401(k) plan, paid holidays and vacation, etc. Would it be correct to say that my wages have stagnated and I'm no better off a decade later? I'm guessing that the average person would say, "No, Williams, your wages haven't stagnated. You forgot to include your non-monetary wages." My colleagues Donald Boudreaux and Liya Palagashvili discuss some of this in their recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, "The Myth of the Great Wages 'Decoupling.'"

They start out saying: "Many pundits, politicians and economists claim that wages have fallen behind productivity gains over the last generation.... This story, though, is built on an illusion. There is no great decoupling of worker pay from productivity. Nor have workers' incomes stagnated over the past four decades." There are two routinely made mistakes when wages are compared over time. "First, the value of fringe benefits — such as health insurance and pension contributions — is often excluded from calculations of worker pay. Because fringe benefits today make up a larger share of the typical employee's pay than they did 40 years ago (about 19 percent today compared with 10 percent back then), excluding them fosters the illusion that the workers' slice of the (bigger) pie is shrinking."

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