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Last Thursday’s news coverage of U.S. inflation rates (as measured by the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, or CPI) rightly emphasized that the February headline figure hit its highest annual rate in 40 years. What such reports seem to have missed is something at least as important, especially for understanding why the American public seems so angry about these price hikes despite lots of other strong economic indicators.

Specifically, the same day the Labor Department released the new CPI numbers, it also posted data showing that after adjusting for inflation, wages for many major categories of U.S. workers saw their greatest drops in several months and in some cases longer than that. And much of the news was especially bad in manufacturing.

To start with the broadest grouping, in February, hourly pay for the average private sector worker fell on month by 0.80 percent, the worst such performance since the 1.72 percent decrease in June, 2020, early during the recovery from the CCP Virus’ first wave. (As known by RealityChek regulars, the Labor Department doesn’t track wages for government workers because those pay levels are mainly set by politicians’ decisions, and therefore say little about the fundamental state of the nation’s labor market or broader economy.)

For private sector production and nonsupervisory workers (who are often called blue-collar workers), the 0.86 real wage decline they experienced was also the worst since June, 2020 (1.30 percent).

On an annual basis, after-inflation wages in February sank for all private sector workers by 2.63 percent – the fastest pace since last May’s 2.67 percent. And for the blue-collar subset, they’re off by 1.93 percent – also the most since last May (2.69 percent).

Throughout manufacturing, these inflation-adjusted wages took major hits, too. For all workers in the sector, such pay dropped by 1.29 percent between January and February – the biggest falloff since May, 2020’s 1.76 percent. For industry’s blue-collar employees, they tumbled by 0.57 percent – the steepest since June, 2020’s 1.31 percent.

Much worse for manufacturing wages were the February year-on-year results. For manufacturing as a whole, they were down in after-inflation terms by 3.43 percent – the greatest decline since April, 2021’s 3.85 percent.

But the real stunner came for the production and nonsupervisory group. The 3.41 percent annual retreat in their real wages was the worst in more than 41 years – going back to July, 1980’s 3.90 percent.

And especially discouraging – with further price hikes in energy (and all the products and services that depend on it) and food seemingly certain because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global markets and supply chains anew, inflation-adjusted wages also seem likely to keep falling. The news that China has just locked down two big industrial cities in an attempt to fight a CCP Virus surge with its Zero Covid policy won’t help, either.

It’s true, as President Biden and his supporters keep noting, that growth is still strong, and that unemployment is way down.  But the former understandably can seem abstract, and high inflation means that even recent job gainers can’t be faulted for feeling that they’re falling behind economically despite paychecks resuming.  

 

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