"Are you better off?" It's a question the candidate of the challenging party asks during each Presidential campaign. The economy, of course, is the No. 1 issue this election, and that question has been raised in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the country. With the recent stock market meltdown and the collateral damage to 401(k) plans, many voters are indeed poorer. But in terms of real wages and the cost of consumer goods, are we truly worse off? For most Americans, the answer is, sadly, yes.
On Jan. 22, 2001, when President George W. Bush took over the White House, the Nasdaq was in the midst of a post-dot-com freefall. Bush had the bad luck of taking office just before the economy went into a recession that March. But after a mini downturn, the American economy experienced a period of recovery and expansion, with the gross domestic product growing at a steady clip and productivity surging 22%. That measure of prosperity, however, hasn't translated into gains for most families.
In 2000 the median U.S. household income was $50,557 (adjusted for inflation), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Seven years later, the median income fell to $50,233. "That might not sound too bad," says Edward Wolff, professor of economics at New York University, "but normally, median income increases. That's not good news for the middle class." Consider that the median household income would be almost $64,000 had paychecks kept pace with the GDP.
While workers' paychecks have stagnated, corporate profits jumped an average of 10.8% per year, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. "The fact that middle-income households ended up below where they were in 2000 despite strong productivity growth—that's the heart of the problem," says Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. "It's one thing if you're looking at a period like now, when the macroeconomy is dysfunctional, but for most of this decade the economy has been pumping along." However, economists at the conservative American Enterprise Institute counter that claims of income stagnation are overblown, pointing out, for example, that household income data does not take into account total compensation, including companies' burgeoning contributions to employee health insurance.
Even though inflation has not been severe for most of the decade, the cost of living has outpaced wages. The consumer price index has risen by 25% since January 2001, while core inflation jumped 18%. But the core consumer price index can be deceptive because it excludes food and energy. Once, after reporting that core inflation had been relatively tame that quarter, Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein came back to the office to find an irate e-mail: "Hey, dummy, what the hell do you think we spend our money on?" The point was taken: When energy and food skyrocket, families feel it.
And skyrocket they have. In early 2001 you could fill your car with regular gas for $1.47 a gallon. But on Oct. 24, three months after regular unleaded peaked at $4.11 a gallon, the average cost was leveling off around $2.78, according to the AAA online Daily Fuel Gauge Report. Grocery store sticker shock has been almost as acute. Take, for example, the price of a dozen eggs, which has risen 97% since 2001, from a nationwide average of $1.01 to $1.99. "You could look at inflation and think it hasn't been that much of a problem, but in fact, if you look at the components of the middle-income consumption basket—tuition, housing, childcare, gas, food—all of those have been rising a lot more quickly," says Bernstein.
Retirees Are Really Feeling It
There are consumer goods that have come down in price. And some economists don't buy the argument that families are being hit where it hurts most. "People are more attuned to price increases than declines, so their perceptions are biased," says Wolff. He points out that the price of goods such as toys and clothing have remained fairly stable because we have benefited from inexpensive imports. Electronics have come down, too, especially when adjusted for advances in technology. In 2001 the base model of Apple's iBook, with its paltry 500MHz chip and 10GB hard drive, sold for $1,499. Today, the basic white 13-inch MacBook laptop will run you $999 for a 2.1 GHz chip and 120GB drive. That's $500 less for nearly four times the speed and 12 times the storage capacity.
For consumers, there's no argument over the impact of the current economic crisis. They're feeling it, especially retirees. Take Patricia Wehrs, a Washington State resident who retired from her federal government job in 2000. She and her husband were all set for a comfortable, though modest, retirement. Then their retirement fund started losing money every month, while the cost of living crept up. "Our basic bills—electric, telephone, water, and cable—went up, in some cases 90%, over the past two years. I've kept the food bills under control with a budget and a diet," jokes Wehrs. "However, fuel costs have drained any extra money, so no more theater, no dinners out, and smaller gifts to the grandchildren for special occasions."
See BusinessWeek.com's slide show for examples of today's higher cost of living.