Inequalities abound in the U.S. economy, and a central driver in recent decades is the widening gap between the hourly compensation of a typical (median) worker and productivity—the income generated per hour of work. This growing divergence has been driven by two other widening gaps, that between the compensation received by the vast majority of workers and those at the top, and that between labor’s share of income and capital’s. This paper presents evidence that the divorce between the growth of median compensation and productivity, the inequality of compensation, and the erosion of labor’s share of income has been generated primarily through intentional policy decisions designed to suppress typical workers’ wage growth, the failure to improve and update existing policies, and the failure to thwart new corporate practices and structures aimed at wage suppression. Inequality will stop rising, and paychecks for typical workers will start rising robustly in line with productivity, only when we enforce labor standards and embrace policies that reestablish individual and collective bargaining power for workers.
Between 1979 and 2017, the compensation of median workers trailed economywide (net) productivity growth by roughly 43%, leading to rising inequality. The effects have been felt broadly: During this time 90% of U.S. workers experienced wage growth slower than the economywide average, while workers at the top (mostly highly credentialed professionals and corporate managers) and owners of capital reaped large rewards made possible only by this anemic wage growth for the bottom 90%. Because the historical legacy of racism has concentrated Black and Latinx workers in the lower half of the wage scale more so than white workers, widespread wage suppression based on class position has inflicted disproportionate harm on them. Further, while women’s wages have grown faster than those for men in recent decades, women’s wage growth still has lagged the economy’s potential. In the fight for a piece of the ever-shrinking share of economic growth available to the bottom 90%, any one group’s gain can feel like another’s loss, leading to political divisions and hindering the formation of cross-racial coalitions based on common interests as workers. In other words, the disappointing wage growth of recent decades is an important economic and political issue.
Yet sluggish wage growth is not a political secret; it has been widely recognized across the political spectrum, even cited by both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms in 2016.1 The root causes of the trend have frequently been misidentified, however. One prominent interpretation is that disappointing wage growth is an unfortunate result of apolitical market forces that one neither can nor would want to alter. Since labor markets are generally competitive and workers and employers have roughly balanced degrees of market power, this argument naively assumes, fundamental apolitical forces like technological change and automation, as well as globalization, have mechanically shifted demand away from non-college-educated and middle-wage workers. But, as this paper will show, the premier research cited in support of an automation/technological theory has itself actually offered empirical metrics that demonstrate that automation/technological change fails to explain wage trends and wage inequality, especially in the period since 1995. Since the automation/technological change explanation is the preeminent explanation drawn from competitive labor market analyses based on equal bargaining power between employers and employees, the failure of automation/technological change to explain wage suppression and wage inequality represents the inability of competitive labor market analyses to adequately explain one of the most salient features of the economy over the last four decades.
Thus, we need to look further for more convincing empirical explanations of why, during a period of rising productivity, hourly compensation for the bottom 90% of all workers has risen so slowly in spite of overall income growth. Doing so requires explaining the key dynamics. The growing wedge between rising productivity and compensation growth for the typical worker financed the increased share of compensation going to top earners, especially those in the top 1% and 0.1%, along with a declining share of income going to labor. In addition, over the last four decades there has been a persistent disparity in the growth of earnings between those in the 90–99% range and those in the middle. Further, wage disparities by gender, race, and ethnicity from the late 1970s, reflecting systemic sexism and racism, remain with us and have sometimes even worsened. Any accounting of where we are and what policies we need must address these issues.
This paper offers a narrative and supporting evidence on the mechanisms that have suppressed wage growth since the late 1970s. We refer in this analysis to wage suppression rather than wage stagnation because it was an actively sought outcome—engineered by policymakers who invited and enabled capital owners and business managers to assault the leverage and bargaining power of typical workers, with the inevitable result that those at the top claim a larger share of income. These policy changes and the change in business practices they enabled have systematically undercut individual workers’ market (exit and voice) options and the ability of workers to obtain higher pay, job security, and better-quality jobs. These corporate and policy decisions had the most adverse consequences for low- and middle-wage workers, who are disproportionately women and minorities, the groups whose legacy of being discriminated against in labor markets means that they especially need low unemployment, unions, strong labor standards, and policy supports for leverage when bargaining with employers.
Neither slow productivity growth nor inevitable economic forces can explain U.S. wage problems. Rather, wage suppression reflects the failure of economic growth to reach the vast majority. It was a “failure by design” (Bivens 2010), engineered by those with the most wealth and power. The dynamics are primarily located in the labor market and the strengthening of employers’ power relative to their rank-and-file workforce (which increasingly includes those workers with a four-year college degree). In other words, the dynamics that have challenged the growth of living standards for the vast majority are based on workers not sharing in economic gains, not, as some have argued, on consumers suffering from monopolistic prices. Changes in product market monopoly and corporate structures have had an impact, but primarily by squeezing supply chain profits and wages rather than by spurring higher consumer prices through much wider profit margins.
As we will discuss, six factors can collectively explain most of the growth of wage inequality and the erosion of labor’s share that resulted in wage suppression over the last four decades (specifically 1979–2017):
- Austerity macroeconomics, including facilitating unemployment higher than it needed to be to keep inflation in check, and responding to recessions with insufficient force;
- Corporate-driven globalization, resulting from policy choices, largely at the behest of multinational corporations, that undercut wages and job security of non-college-educated workers while protecting profits and the pay of business managers and professionals;
- Purposely eroded collective bargaining, resulting from judicial decisions, and policy choices that invited ever more aggressive anti-union business practices;
- Weaker labor standards, including a declining minimum wage, eroded overtime protections, nonenforcement against instances of “wage theft,” or discrimination based on gender, race, and/or ethnicity;
- New employer-imposed contract terms, such as agreements not to compete after leaving employment and to submit to forced private and individualized arbitration of grievances; and
- Shifts in corporate structures, resulting from fissuring (or domestic outsourcing), industry deregulation, privatization, buyer dominance affecting entire supply chains, and increases in the concentration of employers.
Concretely, our analysis attempts to account for the 43 percentage point divergence between the growth of productivity (net of depreciation) and median hourly compensation (wage and benefit) growth between 1979 and 2017. This 43 percentage point wedge excludes any impact of the differing measures of prices used to inflation-adjust productivity and compensation growth. Had median hourly compensation grown with net productivity it would have increased from $20.48 in 1979 to $33.10 in 2017 ($2019). In fact, median hourly compensation was $23.15 in 2017, a $9.95 shortfall from the net productivity benchmark.
We estimate that the first three factors—the impacts that are largest and best measured, i.e., excessive unemployment, eroded collective bargaining, and corporate-driven globalization—explain 55% of the divergence between growth in productivity and median hourly compensation, and specific other factors included above—a diminished overtime salary threshold, employee misclassification, employer-imposed noncompete agreements, and corporate fissuring-subcontracting and major-buyer dominance—explain another 20%. Together, the factors for which we have been able to assess their impact on the median wage can account for three-fourths of the divergence between productivity and median hourly compensation growth from 1979 to 2017. Other factors that we have not been able to empirically assess—increased wage theft and weak enforcement, anti-poaching agreements, increased discrimination, forced arbitration agreements, guestworker programs, and increased prevalence of employer-created “lawless zones” in the labor market where workers are deprived of effective labor protections because of their immigration status—have also contributed to wage suppression.
Our analysis also seeks to account for the falling wages at the 10th percentile and the growth of the wage gap between the 10th percentile and the 50th. We find that these are readily explained by excessive unemployment and the failure to maintain the real value of the minimum wage, factors that have lowered the earnings of the bottom third. Other factors for which we do not yet have good measures of their impact (increased wage theft, the increased share of workers without effective legally protected rights due to their immigration status, and employee misclassification) likely play a role as well. In contrast, our analysis of data (in a section below and in Appendix A) related to automation and skill-biased technological change finds that these factors have had no impact on the suppression of median wages for at least the last 25 years.
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