Thursday, September 15, 2011

Taking a wider view

When dealing with esoteric topics during the day at our jobs and reading narrowly focused books, blogs, and magazines in our free time, I often wonder how well our perceptions of large issues, and of the country in general, fit reality. Contemplating the benefits of a cheap currency in a comfortable den or university office has the tendency to drag one’s thoughts away from the plights facing most of the world’s inhabitants. In light of this, and where I live, I thought I’d first delve into some basic statistics regarding the finances of the average American. Although we’re poorer than we thought, the rest of the world should be so lucky.

To start, and I don’t think these figures get mentioned enough, the median American household income in 2010 was $49,445 (see the data here). Again, that's household income. Half of the households in America make less than that! And that’s with many households having two breadwinners. As scary as that is, the census bureau reports that since 1999 the median income has declined 7.1%. Notice the stagnant (and falling) wages over the last decade in the figure above. As much as our policymakers were concerned about not repeating Japan’s lost decade, it looks like it’s already happened.

In terms of the worst off, the official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1%. To make it a bit less abstract, that’s 46.2 million people; see the accompanying figure. Poverty here is defined as a family of 4 living on less than $22,314 per year. 46 million Americans is about 10 million more than the entire population of California.

The last thing I’ll mention is that in 2010 there were 49.9 million Americans without health insurance. That’s about 1/6th of the country. Perhaps public policy in this country, and our behavior as citizens, would be a bit different if we kept some of these numbers in mind.

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