The Census Bureau recently reported that real median household income in the United States had increased by a hefty 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2015. This is good news that received widespread publicity in the media.
However, less publicized were the important differences between gender and racial groups. In a recent post, I called attention to how white male incomes had stagnated since the late 1960s while those of white women and blacks, men and women, had progressed.
What happened between 2014 and 2015? In tables not included in the publicized Census report, one finds the answer. The incomes of white women increased 7.9 percent while white men gained 5 percent. The incomes of black Americans increased more slowly — with both men and women gaining only 3 percent.
One should not overemphasize change over only one year, but these results suggest that white men could continue to feel left behind, at least relative to white women.
The same thing is true if you look at personal income, rather than household income, as did the Census report. Looking at household income made a lot of sense in the 1950s and ’60s when adult Americans typically lived in male-female households with a male wage earner. But in the current economy, one also needs to look at people. If a husband loses his job and the wife gets a pay increase, male income will go down and female income will go up. Household income may be stable, but individual experiences will differ.
Yet the household data is largely consistent with the data on people. In a female family household with no husband present, median household income increased by 4.4 percent. In a male family household with no wife present, the increase was 3.9 percent. In non-family households, female median income rose by 8.7 percent and male income by only 3.9 percent.
There are also interesting differences based on citizenship. The median income of native-born households increased by 4.4 percent while that of noncitizens increased by 10.5 percent. Two cautions are in order, however. First, the census report is based on a total sample of 95,000 households, and noncitizens are a relatively small part of the sample. Second, individuals may not accurately report citizenship.
A final contrast with the 5.2 percent figure comes from the growth in the incomes of full-time, year-round workers. This, pretty much buried in the census report, was only 1.5 percent for men and 2.7 percent for women. So much of the gain in median income must have come from increased part-time hours and non-employment income including dividends, interest, pensions, Social Security and retirement distributions.
In short, for most Americans with full-time jobs but no other sources of income, 2015 was just blah.
Howard Rosenthal is professor of politics at New York University and Roger Williams Straus professor of social sciences, emeritus, at Princeton University.