Yes, I’m surprised I still exist, too.
It’s misleading, and I will tell you why: look at the census data he’s drawing on. We are not talking about the Median Income levels for all citizens of the United States. We’re talking about Median Income…for each household.
I’m not splitting hairs. There are a number of reasons why the average income for a household might decline that would in no way suggest a decline in the standard of living. If the proportion of low-income people who are buying their own houses increases, then the average might decrease, but the people who already owned homes are not any worse off than they were before.
It could also be that more single people are buying their own homes. If you have fewer income earners in each house, then naturally the average “per house” goes down, but comparing a house owned by a twenty-something single IT student with a house occupied by a family of five would be rather unproductive if you’re attempting to get a sense of general standard of living.
But enough talk. Let’s look at some information.
First source: Historic Table of Homeownership. This one goes back even farther than the Median Income table, beginning at 1965. But even in the window Drum is looking at, (1984 to the present) there is clearly a slow, but steady, long term trend towards a higher general rate of homeownership.
Unfortunately, the table doesn’t break it down by state, but rather by region. Gotta work with the info I have on hand.
So here it is:
First Quarter of 1984:
United States 64.6
Second Quarter of 2006:
United States 68.5
As you can see, that is a net increase in every region.
Mind you, this isn’t just an increase in the number of people who own homes, it’s an increase in the percentage of the total population, which has itself grown.
Anyway, if you want to look at median income, then just look at it. Don’t talk about things like “households”, which are variable in the number of people that live in any given one as well as the stage in life the householder is.
Though this table only goes to 2004, I think you can forgive me a year.
In exchange, I’ll start earlier: we’ll go from 1980 to 2004, looking at the average per capita income of the US.
Calculated in 2004 dollars, average per capita income went from $16,908 in 1980 to $23,848 in 2004. At the same time that the rate was increasing, our population also grew by about 29% (from roughtly 225 million to roughly 291 million).
Once again, if you calculate by household, you will not be presenting evidence having anything to do with the income of the average American. For all we know, people of certain income levels are more willing to go into debt in order to buy a home than they used to be. For all we know, there are lots of crazy people who prefer to live in their car even though they’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Though the last scenario is presented in jest, I merely wish to make the case that relying on the household as a standard unit leaves out information that is far too important to ignore.
I’m not going to make any grand arguments about whether or not Americans as a whole are better off, though the information I’ve provided would seem to suggest that. But I would need some far more refined information in order to make a decent case, and I simply haven’t the time to do that kind of research.
I do think that in light of what I’ve said, the Kevin Drum analysis can be considered entirely irrelevant to the point he was trying to make.