Real Household Income

A recent GEI News article discussed a New York Times article about the dramatic decline in median real household income during and after The Great Recession.  The question was not addressed about the historical context of these recent numbers.  That is the purpose of this article.  The data available from the St. Louis Fed data base goes back to 1967.

There are really three periods of unique behavior for real median household income:  1967-1982, 1983-1999 and 2000 -2011.  This quite evident in the following graph:

We will skip all the political drivel about how good Reagan and Clinton were for the economy and ask the question:  Why, really, did the “Golden Years” occur? The first couple of years (1983 and 1984) can be attributed to the “natural” rebound that used to be seen in personal incomes after a recession ended. The years 1985 -1999 are the years of the computer revolution which ended with the bubble. There is nothing like a booming new economic activity to boost personal incomes, along with many other desirable economic events.

What other changes were occurring in the late 1980s and the 1990s that might have contributed to the two extraordinary surges in real household income. An obvious possibility is demographics. Two possible effects here would both affect the labor participation rate, which in turn would be expected to push household incomes higher: (1) More two income households as more married women worked and (2) A population bulge of working age people as these were the years when all of the baby boomers were over 20.

Number of Married Women Working

Lets look at the women working first. In the following graph we see that the number of married women working was growing much faster than married men.

We can see that the bulk of the difference in rate of employment growth occurred before the mid 1980s.  The slopes of the two curves for the “golden years” are nearly identical.  The fact that a disproportionate increase in the number of women working was not a factor is seen in the following graph, where the ratio of married men to married women working has been plotted.

The ratio is changing very slowly from the mid 1980s (about 1.4) to the late 1990s (about 1.3).  In the preceding 15 years then ratio had come down from much more rapidly from a level around 2.2.  The earlier 15 years had seen virtually no increase in median real household income.

There is one factor that we have not measured here.  The rise in the relative number of women working was not changing radically after the mid 1980s but perhaps their pay was rising faster than men.  That is data that will need to be examined.

Another factor that should be looked at is the increase in the number of unmarried couples forming households in the past twenty years or so.  That would also increase household income for what were formerly two households have become one and do not show up in the data for married men and women.

Employment Population Ratio

This is something that we would expect to be affected by the baby boom bubble being completely in the work force, just because the working age cohort is a larger portion of the population in these years. That is exactly what is seen as the baby boomers are all in the over-twenty population by 1984.

Trend lines added by author.

It is clear that the baby boomers probably helped boost the population participation rate, but that does not explain why the golden years went on as long as they did.  Presumably most of the baby boomers were in the work force by the mid 1980s.

And the baby boom cannot explain why real household income has dropped so much in the years since 2000.  The first baby boomers only reached age 65 this year.


We still have a mystery not explained about why the “golden years” for real household income occurred when and how they did.  Until more data is examined we will have to listen to Republicans talk about the genius of Reagan and the Democrats about the acumen of Clinton.

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