October 19, 2011 / 9:30 PM / 8 years ago

First look at US pay data, it’s awful

Anyone who wants to understand the enduring nature of Occupy Wall Street and similar protests across the country need only look at the first official data on 2010 paychecks, which the U.S. government posted on the Internet on Wednesday.

The figures from payroll taxes reported to the Social Security Administration on jobs and pay are, in a word, awful.

These are important and powerful figures. Maybe the reason the government does not announce their release — and so far I am the only journalist who writes about them each year — is the data show how the United States smolders while Washington fiddles.

There were fewer jobs and they paid less last year, except at the very top where, the number of people making more than $1 million increased by 20 percent over 2009.

The median paycheck — half made more, half less — fell again in 2010, down 1.2 percent to $26,364. That works out to $507 a week, the lowest level, after adjusting for inflation, since 1999.

The number of Americans with any work fell again last year, down by more than a half million from 2009 to less than 150.4 million.

More significantly, the number of people with any work has fallen by 5.2 million since 2007, when the worst recession since the Great Depression began, with a massive taxpayer bailout of Wall Street following in late 2008. This means 3.3 percent of people who had a job in 2007, or one in every 3330, went all of 2010 without earning a dollar. (Update: the original version of this column used the wrong ratio.)

In addition to the 5.2 million people who no longer have any work add roughly 4.5 million people who, due to population growth, would normally join the workforce in three years and you have close to 10 million workers who did not find even an hour of paid work in 2010.

SIX TRILLION DOLLARS These figures come from the Medicare tax database at the Social Security Administration, which processes every W-2 wage form. All wages, salaries, bonuses, independent contractor net income and other compensation for services subject to the Medicare tax are added up to the penny.

Budget cuts that raise costs

In 2010 total wages and salaries came to $6,009,831,055,912.11.

That’s a bit more than $6 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, that is less than each of the previous four years and almost identical to 2005, when the U.S. population was 4.2 percent smaller.

While median pay — the halfway point on the salary ladder declined, average pay rose because of continuing increases at the top. Average pay was $39,959 last year, up $46 — or less than a buck a week — compared with 2009. Average pay peaked in 2007 at $40,764, which is $15 a week more than average weekly wage income in 2010.

The number of workers making $1 million or more rose to almost 94,000 from 78,000 in 2009. However, that was still below some earlier years, including 2007, when more than 110,000 workers made more than $1 million each. At the very top, the number of workers making more than $50 million rose in 2010 to 81, up from 72 the year before. But average pay in this group declined $4.5 million to $79.6 million.

What these figures tell us is that there was a reason voters responded in the fall of 2010 to the Republican promise that if given control of Congress they would focus on one thing: jobs.

But while Republicans were swept into the majority in the House of Representatives, that promise has been ignored. Not only has no jobs bill been enacted since January, but the House will not even bring up for a vote the jobs bill sponsored by President Obama. His bill is far from perfect, but where is the promised Republican legislation to get people back to work?

Instead of jobs, the focus on Capitol Hill is on tax cuts for corporations with untaxed profits held offshore, on continuing the temporary Bush administration tax cuts — especially for those making $1 million or more – and on cutting federal spending, which mean destroying more jobs in the short run.

At the same time, nonfinancial companies are sitting on more than $2 trillion of cash — nearly $7,000 per American — with no place to invest it profitably. This money cannot even be invested to earn the rate of inflation. All this capital is sitting on the sidelines waiting for profitable opportunities to be invested, which will not and cannot happen until more people have jobs and wages rise, creating increased demand for goods and services.

More of the same approach we have had for most of the last three decades and all of the last ten years is not going to increase demand, create more jobs or enable overall prosperity. In the long run, continuing current policies will make even the richest among us less well off than they would be in a robust economy with government policies that foster job creation and the capital investment that grows from increased demand.

On top of this are the societal problems caused by something the United States has never experienced before, except during the Depression — chronic, long-term unemployment.

Having millions who want work go years without a single day on a payroll is more than just a waste of talent and time. It also can change social attitudes about work and not for the better.

First look at US pay data, it’s awful

The data show why protests like Occupy Wall Street have so quickly gained momentum around the country, as people who cannot find work try to focus the federal government on creating jobs and dealing with the banking sector that many demonstrators blame for the lack of jobs.

Will official Washington look at the numbers and change course? Or do voters need to change their elected representatives if they want to put America back on a path to widespread prosperity? (Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh)

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