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Questo articolo è stato pubblicato il 26 settembre 2014 alle ore 14:49.
L'ultima modifica è del 15 ottobre 2014 alle ore 14:05.


BERKELEY – One of the United States’ defining – and disheartening – economic trends over the last 40 years has been real-wage stagnation for most workers. According to a recent , the median full-time male worker earned $50,033 in 2013, barely distinguishable from the comparable (inflation-adjusted) figure of $49,678 in 1973.

Because most households earn the bulk of their income from their labor, the absence of real-wage growth is a major factor behind the stagnation of family incomes. The average family income of the bottom 90% of households has been . Real family income for the median household in 2013 was 8% below its 2007 level and nearly 9% below its 1999 peak.

Stagnating middle-class wages and family incomes are a major factor behind the US economy’s slow recovery from the 2007-2009 recession, and pose a serious threat to long-term growth and competitiveness. Household consumption accounts for more than two-thirds of aggregate demand, and consumption growth depends on income growth for the bottom 90%.

The heyday of US economic growth in the two decades after World War II was also a golden era for the middle class. The long boom of the 1990s, when the US enjoyed sustained full employment, was one of few periods in the last 40 years when incomes climbed at every quintile of the income distribution.

Many influential economists are now worried that the US faces owing to a persistent gap between aggregate demand and full employment. Stagnant middle-class incomes imply weak aggregate demand, which in turn means for most workers. In the absence of aggressive monetary and fiscal policies to support aggregate demand at full-employment levels, the result is a vicious slow-growth cycle.

Two competitiveness gurus, Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin of Harvard Business School, that stagnant middle-class incomes undermine US companies in several ways. Businesses cannot thrive for long while their communities languish, they cautioned. Unless corporations step up to the plate, American business will suffer from an inadequate workforce, a population of depleted consumers, and large blocs of anti-business voters.

Porter and Rivkin are not calling on businesses simply to pay their workers more. Instead, they are urging businesses to engage in a strategic, collaborative push to improve education and training to raise the skill levels of their workers.

That is a laudable goal. But, as Porter and Rivkin find in their survey of business leaders, companies often discourage investment in skills by their reluctance to hire full-time workers. Nearly half of the respondents indicated that, when possible, they prefer to invest in technology or outsource to third parties and hire part-time workers, none of whom receive much additional training or have a stake in their company’s long-term success.

There is also a disturbing implication in the Porter-Rivkin survey that workers themselves, along with America’s schools, are to blame for wage stagnation: If only workers were not so poor in math and science, so ill-equipped for the modern world, and so unproductive, they would earn higher incomes.

The reality is different. US productivity has been growing at a respectable pace for two decades. The problem is that productivity gains have not translated into commensurate wage increases for the typical worker or income growth for the typical family.

According to standard economic theory, real wages should track productivity. As Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute , this was the case from 1948 until about 1973. Since then, real wages for the typical worker have flat-lined, while productivity has continued to climb. Mishel calculates that productivity increased 80.4% from 1948 to 2011, while median real wages rose only 39% – almost none of the wage growth occurred during the last four decades.

True, highly skilled workers, especially those with sought-after technology skills and postgraduate degrees, have fared much better. But that prosperity has reached only a small elite.

From 1979 to 2012, the real median wage increased by only 5%. But real wages climbed 154% for the top 1% of wage earners and 39% for the top 5%, while real wages stagnated for the bottom 20th percentile of workers and fell for the bottom tenth. Indeed, inequality in labor compensation has been the largest driver of yawning income inequality, except at the very top of the income distribution, where capital income has been more important.

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