Speeches and Papers

How the US Middle Class Became 10 Percent Poorer

by Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, Peterson Institute for International Economics

Article in The Globalist
August 1, 2007


The OECD in Paris has monumental news for middle-class America. The OECD, of course, is the most trusted source for internationally comparative data on economic issues in the developed world.

Its statistical department, in cooperation with member states’ national statistical agencies, is engaged in an exercise to turn often diverse national statistical surveys of very different “middle classes” into cross-country datasets that enable true comparisons across countries.

Statistics at Play

So what’s the bombshell buried in the statistical pile? As it turns out, the OECD statisticians have just—in one fell swoop—lowered the estimated income for the average American worker by more than 10 percent, and at the same time raised incomes for the middle classes of other major countries by up to more than 30 percent.

Sadly, it will likely be lost on CNN’s Lou Dobbs (and his viewers) that the culprit here is not globalization or wicked foreign workers competing on an uneven playing field—but a matter of mere statistical validity.

Evidently, all statistical work is caught between statistical accuracy (which researchers like)— and the need to keep costs and the burden of respondents down (which is preferred by taxpayers and those who are measured).

Changing Data

Subsequently, what the OECD has used until recently as a proxy for the “middle class” was the set of data that was most widely available across member states. It is the concept of the “average production worker” (APW).

This group includes adult full-time workers who are directly engaged in a production activity in the manufacturing sector, including manual (nonsupervisory) workers and minor shop-floor supervisory workers. Excluded were nonmanual (supervisory) workers, part-timers, and all workers outside the manufacturing sector.

Better Representation

Those statistics represented the industrial economy quite well but also ensured that a relatively small (and declining) subset of workers outside booming sectors like technology or finance came to represent the “middle class” statistically.

Another distorting factor was that, in the case of the United States, the manufacturing sector is typically far more unionized than the rest of the economy. And that means their wages are higher than in nonunionized fields of the economy.

However, as a result of better statistical data-gathering across other sectors of the economy in more countries, the OECD recently updated its definition of “the middle class.” It now focuses on “the average worker”—rather than “the average production worker.”

A Wide Range

This new proxy for the middle class captures a far larger group than the old one—and includes essentially the entire private-sector economy. It ranges from mining and quarrying, utilities, construction, wholesale/retail/repair, hotel/restaurants, and transportation to financial services and real estate—and includes both manual and nonmanual workers.

Included in middle-class income are all wages, cash supplements, bonuses, overtime pay, holiday pay, Christmas bonuses, etc.

Varying Effects

Interestingly enough, this one change in statistical methodology has very different effects on the middle classes in different OECD countries.

While the United States saw a decrease in average income of 10 percent—the biggest decline of all 30 member states—the income of the British middle class rose by 32 percent. Similarly, France’s, Germany’s, and Japan’s average income increased by 28 percent, 20 percent, and 17 percent, respectively.

A small consolation for US middle-class workers would be that the incomes of its nearby Canadian brethren also declined by 5 percent.

Effects of Unions

In the United States (and Canada), the manufacturing sector is highly unionized, especially in comparison to other sectors of the economy. Detroit’s autoworkers, in particular, have traditionally enjoyed a status of “princes of labor,” earning far higher wages than most other US private-sector workers, especially in many services sectors like construction, hotels, and restaurants.

Now that these services sectors are included in calculating “the middle-class” pay level, the average income of the US middle class has evidently gone down quite substantially.

Accurate Results

Mind you, lest CNN’s Lou Dobbs and other prognosticators of doom get too excited, it is important to remember that this decline in income is a statistical correction. US income levels in the past had appeared higher than they were in reality.

Moreover, it is quite revealing that even the inclusion of the very high earning levels in the financial services sectors in the middle class—especially as supervisory workers (management) are now also counted—did not in the aggregate in the case of the United States act as a sufficient counterweight to the inclusion of more low-income workers.

Contrast that with the situation in the United Kingdom, where evidently the inclusion of the financial sector of the city of London boosted “average middle-class incomes” by about a third. Either London’s bankers earn far more than Wall Street’s, or there are far more low-wage middle-class people in the United States than in the United Kingdom.

Richest Middle Class

The result of all this is that today, the richest middle class in the OECD is found in Britain. In 2006, an average single British middle-class worker earning the average wage, net of taxes, and in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, had an income nearly 50 percent higher than his US counterpart—$35,000 compared to $25,000.

As a matter of fact, US middle-class workers found themselves outside the top 10 in the OECD.

Marriage Not a Solution

And it doesn’t even help to marry. A British middle-class family with two children and two incomes of 100 percent and 67 percent of average wages still earns over 40 percent more (in PPP terms, net of taxes) than their US counterparts ($65,000 compared to $45,500). In fact, US families in this category rank only 15th in the OECD.

It may well be outside the realm of sanity to an American visiting London that a small lunch salad at Wimbledon is £8—or more than $16. But the truth is that it is probably not outside the purchasing power of the middle classes—or at least not the British one.

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