Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Stagnation Of The Middle Class, In 1 Graph

Earnings for full-time, year-round workers
via Census Bureau
Earnings for full-time, year-round workers

If you look at only one slide deck of Census data today, make it this one (PDF). If you can't be bothered with a slide deck, at least look at this graph (though it's not pretty, in any sense):

Median earnings for men who work full time, year-round jobs have been stagnant since the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation. Wages for women rose through the end of the 20th century, but have flat lined since 2001, as has the gap in earnings between men and women. (Here's an Excel spreadsheet with all the data.)

The graph — part of a big report the Census bureau released Tuesday — is, unfortunately, something of a dog-bites-man story by now. The Census puts out this report every year, and this year's version looks a lot like last year's.

There are a few big, crucial trends that people point to to explain the stagnation. Here's how the FT laid it out (emphasis added by us):

The rise of China, India, Brazil and others has undercut wages in the West and put America's unskilled, semi-skilled and even skilled workers out of jobs.

... the explosion of new technology, which has enabled the most routine and easily automated jobs to be replaced by computers. Think of the office assistant, who once took dictation and brewed the coffee. She is now a ­BlackBerry ...

... the conservative backlash, which began when Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980 and sped up the decline of unions ... .

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.