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A Facebook exchange I was involved in last night prompted me to check the U.S. government data to find out how widespread was the trend of falling real wages – and by definition falling living standards. And the answer is: incredibly widespread – including in supply chain-related sectors where crippling labor shortages are often blamed for much of the bottleneck problem that has helped fuel inflation by reducing the supply of goods sought by Americans.

The exchange began when a Facebook friend posted her view that the U.S. economy was doing far better than gloomy press reports indicated. I countered with my “putting people first” argument that falling living standards meant that the economy was failing in its fundamental mission: improving Americans’ material lives. My interlocutor responded by claiming that the unusually large number of unfilled job openings have appeared during the stop-and-start recovery from the brief but steep CCP Virus-induced downturn showed that many Americans falling behind economically could easily improve their lot by taking jobs in higher paying industries.

I could have answered by pointing out how many Americans in low-paying jobs in particular lack the training to move that wage ladder. But I was more struck by the pervasiveness of the recent decline in inflation-adjusted hourly pay – which shows that even those able to make that transition will find themselves on a downward moving escalator for the time being.

Specifically, I looked at price-adjusted wage trends on a November, 2020-November, 2021 basis for the eight broadest categories tracked by the Bureau of Labo Statistics (BLS). They are: mining and logging; construction; manufacturing; trade, transportation and utilities; information services; professional and business services; leisure and hospitality; and miscellaneous services.

How many of these eight sectors saw real wage declines between the two Novembers? Seven. Leisure and hospitality was the lone exception, and it’s the lowest paying of these categories by far. The constant dollar wage out-performance there was indeed encouraging, but with these hourly earnings still only standing at $6.88 in 1982-84 dollars – versus $11.13 for the private sector as a whole – I wouldn’t claim economic success just yet.

(As known by RealityChek regulars, BLS doesn’t monitor wages in the public sector because there, pay is determined mainly by politicians’ decisions, not economic fundamentals.)

The names of these eight sectors, however, make clear that they’re so broad that they could include subsectors where the story’s very different. And that’s true even for a number of what might be called pandemic-specific sectors with lots of job openings – but only sometimes.

For example, the enormous national healthcare sector is part of the business and professional services grouping, where real hourly wages of $13.44 – higher than the private sector average – are off by a little over one percent so far this year. But for healthcare alone, they’re up by just under one percent (to a lower $12.13, though).

Dig deeper, and you find that after-inflation wages for hospitals, nursing care facilities, elder care facilities, and child care services, have risen, too. But except for hospital workers (a broad, relatively high paying category itself), hourly wages in 1982-84 dollars in none of these sectors is anywhere close to even a measly $10. And none has seen year-on-year wage increases of more than 1.95 percent (for hospital workers).

The wage situation is even worse in many of the supply chain-related industries within the trade, transportation, and utilities super-sector. For example, next time you hear about a dire nation-wide shortage of truck drivers, keep in mind that their real wages have decreased by 3.67 percent annually as of November. And workers at those equally strained warehouses? They’re only off by 0.25 percent. But they’re supposed to be desperate to hire! What gives?

The most obvious answer to me is that a supposed labor shortage in a sector where real wages are decreasing is really a tale of inadequate pay. But that’s a subject for another post – or six. For today, though, it seems abundantly clear that the headline real wage decline number isn’t masking lots of workers gaining ground, and that if you view that standard as the main test of an economy’s success, America’s is definitely flunking.