Shortchanging Our Paychecks

Back in the “Happy Days” of the 1950s and 1960s, most young American couples graduated from high school or college, got married, and immediately bought the most expensive house they could afford. They bought their houses on credit, their cars on credit, their appliances on credit, their furniture on credit, and even their baby clothes on credit. They didn’t have credit cards, but they sure did have debt.

Those young families in the 1950s and 1960s were perfectly rational in loading up on debt. It made sense for them to borrow as much as they could because they expected paying it off to get easier and easier every year. Between 1870 and 1970 the median male U.S. income rose on average 2 percent per year. In the 1950s and 1960s it grew even faster, at around a 2.5 percent clip.

1950s-family-standard-of-living-debt-income

In addition to this broad income growth, any individual could count on his or her income to rise with seniority. Add in another 1-percent yearly raise tied to seniority, and a typical American man could expect his paycheck to annually grow by 3.5 percent. Over the course of a 40-year career, he could expect his wages to quadruple — even after adjusting for inflation.

It made perfect sense to follow a “borrow now and pay later when you make four times as much” plan back then.

Today, everything has changed. Median male income hasn’t just stagnated since 1970. Wages for American men have actually declined.

The Baby Boomers kept on buying and borrowing, but many of them learned that one income wasn’t enough to pay their debts. That’s why the proportion of women with children who had jobs outside the home climbed from one in three in 1975 to two in three in 2008. For a while, women saved the American Dream.

Not anymore. Over the past decade women’s participation in the labor force has maxed out. Even if more women want to work, there aren’t any new jobs for them. The situation facing today’s indebted families is bleak. Wages overall are declining. Even if a worker does get a 1-percent annual seniority raise, that’s a 50-percent increase in income over a 40-year career — nothing like the 300-percent increases previous generations experienced. The money just isn’t there.

It gets worse. Young couples now have large debts before they ever get married, often from burgeoning student loans. On top of that, young couples now have to save for their own retirement, since Social Security benefits are far lower compared to national income than they were in the 1960s and private pensions have all but disappeared. And of course ordinary people now have to pay for health care expenses that used to be covered by insurance.

Families today are drowning in debt. Yet the problem isn’t the borrowing. Young families should be able to borrow to buy houses, cars, and furniture. The problem is that income and benefits for most Americans have stagnated over the past four decades.

If today’s young couples were getting 3.5-percent annual raises, didn’t have to worry about spiralling health care expenses and college tuition, and had solid company-sponsored pension plans to supplement ever more generous Social Security payments in retirement, they would have no problem getting themselves out of debt.

That may all sound like a dream. But it’s a dream that used to be reality for the majority of Americans.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Since 1970 the U.S. economy has doubled in per capita terms, after adjusting for inflation. We have the money for everyone to live very well — twice as well as in 1970.

Young families today are struggling because the benefits of America’s economic growth over the past 40 years haven’t been shared equally. They’ve all gone to the very top. It’s time to restore some balance. It’s time to give ordinary people a nice, big, fat raise. Then they could pay their debts on their own, with pride and dignity.

Salvatore Babones is an American sociologist at the University of Sydney and an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. His book on the American economy, Benchmarking America, is due out in 2013.