Center for American Progress

Feeling the Squeeze: Challenges Facing American Workers
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Feeling the Squeeze: Challenges Facing American Workers

Michael Ettlinger Testifies Before the House Committee on Ways and Means

CAP's Michael Ettlinger testifies to the House Ways and Means Committee on the current economic difficulties faced by U.S. workers.

A cashier rings up a customer at a produce store in Albany, NY. The rise in food prices since last year is only one of many factors adding to the hardship of U.S. workers. (AP/Mike Groll)
A cashier rings up a customer at a produce store in Albany, NY. The rise in food prices since last year is only one of many factors adding to the hardship of U.S. workers. (AP/Mike Groll)

CAPAF’s Michael Ettlinger testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support. Read the full testimony. (CAPAF)

That American workers are indeed facing challenges is difficult to deny. This isn’t the great depression but it is a period distinguishable from any in the post-war era. It’s statistically distinguishable by a number of measures, but it’s also distinguishable beyond each of these measures in two important ways. The first is simply that the challenges are coming on so many fronts. Things have gotten worse before, but we are now headed in the wrong direction, or at risk of heading in the wrong direction, in several areas that are critical to working Americans. Wages are stagnant or declining, costs are rising, access to health care is declining, retirement security is in decline—and most recently, the value of the family nest-egg in the form of their homes has fallen dramatically. The second way today is different is that the public, while holding to optimism for themselves, doesn’t see these problems being addressed at the societal level or for their children.

How bad are things? Before I get into the statistics, there’s an important, admittedly fairly obvious, point I’d like to make about interpreting them. In general, what one hears in this sort of presentation are a lot of averages and medians—single numbers to represent a very wide set of experiences by real people. Of course, however, if I tell you that as of 2007 real median household income was 0.8 percent lower than in 1999—that doesn’t sound like a good thing—after all, there’s an expectation that incomes rise in this country, not fall. But that number also has the feel of things not changing, that the situation might not be ideal, but, really, what’s going on isn’t imposing any significant hardships—0.8 percent doesn’t seem like that much. In fact, however, what I want to point out is that if an average or median is stagnant or falling, that means that while some are getting ahead, many, many are falling behind—that if a median income is falling 0.8 percent then millions of Americans are losing 5 percent, 10 percent, or more. So, if we’re defining our economic aspirations statistically, they should be ambitious enough that they bring most people along, not just the fanciful median or average working person. And stagnant median or average incomes don’t do that.

Read the full testimony. (CAPAF)

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Authors

Michael Ettlinger

Vice President, Economic Policy

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