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A long, steep drop for Americans' standard of living

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"In a dynamic economy, one would expect Americans' disposable income to be growing, but it has flattened out at a low level," says economist Bob Brusca of Fact & Opinion Economics in New York.

To be sure, the recession has hit unevenly, with lower-skilled and less-educated Americans feeling the pinch the most, says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Economy.com based in West Chester, Pa. Many found their jobs gone for good as companies moved production offshore or bought equipment that replaced manpower.

"The pace of change has been incredibly rapid and incredibly tough on the less educated," says Mr. Zandi, who calls this period the most difficult for American households since the 1930s. "If you don't have the education and you don't have the right skills, then you are getting creamed."

Per capita disposal personal income – a key indicator of the standard of living – peaked in the spring of 2008, at $33,794 (measured as after-tax income). As of the second quarter of 2011, it was $32,479 – almost a 4 percent drop. If per capita disposable income had continued to grow at its normal pace, it would have been more than $34,000 a year by now.

The so-called misery index, another measure of economic well-being of American households, echoes the finding on the slipping standard of living. The index, a combination of the unemployment rate and inflation, is now at its highest point since 1983, when the US economy was recovering from a short recession and from the energy price spikes after the Iranian revolution.

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