One thing that kept it from being worse -- and what could help get income growing again in the future -- is greater pay equality.
The gender pay-gap – the number of cents a woman makes for every dollar a man makes -– shrank a tiny bit last year, the White House pointed out on Tuesday in discussing a new Census Bureau report on poverty and income. That narrowing helped to prop up household incomes, keeping them merely stagnant instead of falling:
The last stretch of steadily rising median U.S. household incomes was in the 1980s and the 1990s. Men’s income flatlined, largely thanks to the decline in the number and pay of industrial and manufacturing jobs. For women, the trend was different. Not only did their pay relative to men gain ground from 1980 to 1990, as the White House’s chart above shows, but it rose pretty dramatically.
Here's a chart from the Economic Policy Institute of the differing trajectories of men's and women's incomes:
The lingering discrepancy in income is unfair and indefensible, but women spent almost two full decades gaining real income while men were treading water. At about the turn of the century, though, women’s relative income gains petered out. American incomes have suffered from a lost decade ever since:
For more than 20 years beforehand, women's incomes were the main source of real gains in American’s household incomes.
This suggests that one way to boost stagnant American incomes is to raise women’s income. As it happens, there's a law for that: the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has been languishing in the Senate for years.
Equal pay for equal work isn’t simply a matter of basic fairness, it’s an economic stimulus plan worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. It would directly benefit paycheck-earning American women and their families, and disproportionately benefit women of color (for whom the wage gap is bigger than average) and single mothers (whose individual income is a far greater portion of their household income).
But on Monday, when given an opportunity to vote for a law that would pursue these policy objectives –- basic fairness, broad-based economic stimulus, higher household incomes, disproportionate financial benefits for people who are, on average, disproportionately worse-off -– Republican senators choose not to. Not a single Republican senator voted for equal pay.