What Americans Make

by Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson

Last Friday, the Social Security Administration released its figures on how much money Americans made in 2010 from wages, salaries, and tips (but not from capital gains, dividends or rents). Turns out that the 150,398,796 Americans for whom employers issued W-2 forms made just over $6 trillion in net compensation. If you calculate the raw mean average, that comes out to $39,959.30 per worker. But 66 percent of wage earners actually made less than that (or that amount exactly)—which means, the high level of pay for upper-income workers produced a much higher mean average than the average American worker actually makes. The median wage—the dollar amount that 50 percent of wage earners made more than, and 50 percent made less than—was $26,363.55. Twenty-six thousand bucks is what the average American worker makes on the job. That’s right in line with the figures for median household income, which hover around $49,000 once you total the income for everyone at home who has a job.

To be sure, once you allow for the income that people don’t report, or that they make on investments, the income level may rise a bit, even though the vast majority of Americans don’t have significant investments. If the minimum wage were higher, and indexed; if the rate of private sector unionization hadn’t been battered down to its current 7 percent; if manufacturing hadn’t shrunk to 11 percent of the GDP, employing less than 10 percent of the work force; if we hadn’t offshored our industry to China and stood idly by as wages in the States declined accordingly – if we had done any of the things that could have preserved our once-vibrant middle class, then that figure would be higher than 26 thou. But we didn’t and it ain’t.

Keep this figure in mind when Republicans say they’re aghast that nearly half the households in America don’t pay income taxes. The reason for that is that at least half the American work force is paid shit for their labor (and still pays payroll taxes, which means they get shit minus 15 percent). If Republicans want to squeeze more tax revenue out of America’s underpaid workers, there’s a simple way to do that: Change the laws so they get paid more.

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is a vice-chair of Democratic Socialists of America.

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