Tracking Middle Class Family Income: Wonkblog versus the President

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Thursday, 25 July 2013 17:02

Dylan Matthews takes President Obama to task over at Wonkblog for saying in his speech on Wednesday that the typical family's income has barely budged over the last three decades. As Dylan points out, median family income increased by 17.7 percent from 1979 to 2007. That's not great, it had increased by 113.2 percent in the prior three decades (State of Working American 2012-2013 [SWA], Table 2.1), but it's not zero.

So we can say that Obama was not exactly right on this front. But there is one other important item to throw into the mix. The typical family was putting in many more hours of work in 2007 than in 1979. This was primarily a story of women entering the paid labor force. The average number of hours worked for families in the middle quintile increased by 10.3 percent between 1997-2007 (SWA, Table 2.17).

So families did have a bit more money in 2007 than they did in 1979, but they had increased their work hours by almost as much. And of course there are work related expenses (e.g. child care, transportation, clothing) that likely ate up a very large share of the increase in money income for these families. Obama's claim may not have been exactly right, but if we look at the larger picture, it was not far from the mark.