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A New ‘State of Working America’

Research & Commentary
February 28, 2011


The folks over at the Economic Policy Institute in downtown Washington can sometimes sound like a broken record. But they should take that as a compliment, a tribute to their wisdom — and perseverance.

Every two years now, ever since 1988, EPI researchers have been publishing a data-rich compendium entitled The State of Working America. The broken record part? Every State of Working America has essentially carried the same message: Working Americans are struggling mightily. Wealthy Americans are waltzing.

That message hasn’t changed because reality hasn’t either. Since 1988 — Ronald Reagan’s last full year in the White House — the nation’s

These details, at first, only appeared in 500-plus-page State of Working America printed volumes. But EPI, with the advent of the Web in the 1990s, soon started porting data from the printed State of Working America onto its Web site.

The State of Working America, with this month’s new edition, has now gone totally cyber. EPI researchers have re-imagined their handiwork as an interactive online experience. And they’ve succeeded marvelously, most particularly with a fascinating feature they call, When income grows, who gains?

You can pick, with this new feature, any two years between 1917 and 2008 and compare how average incomes for America’s top 10 percent and bottom 90 percent have fared.

In the quarter-century between 1932 — the nadir of the Great Depression — and 1957, for instance, the EPI timeline shows that average U.S. incomes grew by $19,472, in 2008 dollars. America’s richest 10 percent took in 25 percent of that growth. The bottom 90 percent share: 75 percent.

Between 1973 and 2008, by contrast, average U.S. incomes — again in 2008 dollars — only grew by $12,707. The top 10 percent grabbed 87 percent of that gain, the bottom 90 percent only 13 percent.

And what do numbers like these mean for the lives working Americans actually lead? The State of Working America details that answer, too, in a series of charts on everything from average weekly wages to life expectancy.

Back in 1971, the EPI numbers show, male 60-year-olds in the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution could expect to live 1.2 years less, on average, than Americans in the top half. By 2001, that life expectancy gap between top and bottom halves had more than quadrupled, to 5.8 years.

EPI researchers haven’t just pumped all their data up onto the Web. They’ve done everything possible to make their research as accessible as possible, to students and scholars and just-plain concerned citizens.

Anyone who posts to a blog, for instance, can now quickly “embed” any State of Working America graph into any posting.

The folks at EPI, in other words, have done a fantastic job of sharing their information. The rest of us, armed with this information, can now do battle — more effectively — to share our nation’s wealth.

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