Ben Bernanke and Peter Olson:
Are Americans better off than they were a decade or two ago?: Economically speaking, are we better off than we were ten years ago? Twenty years ago? When asked such questions, Americans seem undecided, almost schizophrenic, with large majorities saying the country is heading “in the wrong direction,” even as they tell pollsters that they are optimistic about their personal financial situations and the medium-term economic outlook.
In their thirst for evidence on this issue, commentators seized on the recent report by the Bureau of the Census, which found that real median household income rose by 5.2 percent in 2015, as showing that “the middle class has finally gotten a raise.” Unfortunately, that conclusion puts too much weight on a useful, but flawed and incomplete, statistic. Among the more significant problems with the Census’s measure are that: 1) it excludes taxes, transfers, and non-monetary compensation like employer-provided health insurance; and 2) it is based on surveys rather than more-complete tax and administrative data, with the result that it has been surprisingly inconsistent with the official national income numbers in recent years. Even if precisely measured, data on income exclude important determinants of economic well-being, such as the hours of work needed to earn that income.
While thinking about the question, we came across a recently published article by Charles Jones and Peter Klenow, which proposes an interesting new measure of economic welfare. While by no means perfect, it is considerably more comprehensive than median income, taking into account not only growth in per capita consumption but also changes in working time, life expectancy, and inequality. Moreover, as the authors demonstrate, it can be used to assess economic performance both across countries and over time. In this post we’ll report some of their results, and extend part of their analysis (which ends before the Great Recession) through 2015.
The bottom line: According to this metric, Americans enjoy a high level of economic welfare relative to most other countries, and the level of Americans’ well-being has continued to improve over the past few decades despite the severe disruptions of the last one. However, the rate of improvement has slowed noticeably in recent years, consistent with the growing sense of dissatisfaction evident in polls and politics. …