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The Media and the Economy

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www.usnews.com

Neil Irwin had a piece on the disconnect between media coverage of the economy and the economy as actually experienced by everyday Americans:

If your entire understanding of the economy comes from headlines about the latest economic data, you would be forgiven for thinking these are the best of times. The unemployment rate is down to 5.1 percent, after all!

If your entire understanding of the economy comes from what is going on in financial markets, you would be forgiven for thinking the same. The stock market, its recent dip notwithstanding, is still not far from all-time highs!

That’s what makes the latest annual data on incomes, released by the Census Bureau on Wednesday morning, an important corrective.

The median American household in 2014 had a lower income, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it did in 2013. The $53,657 the household in the middle of the income distribution earned last year was down 1.5 percent from the year before, though the census said that shift was not statistically significant.

But even if that drop is a statistical blip and you assume that middle-class incomes were really flat, flat isn’t anything to celebrate in the current environment. The 2014 real median income number is 6.5 percent below its 2007, pre-crisis level. It is 7.2 percent below the number in 1999.

A middle-income American family, in other words, makes substantially less money in inflation-adjusted terms than it did 15 years ago. And there is no evidence that is reversing. Those families lost ground in 2014. And as we’ve reported previously, the data on wages in 2015 so far does not suggest there is a meaningful acceleration on the way.

The media coverage of the economy is shameful. So much of it is focused on the wealthy. The constant updating of the stock market, whether on CNN or NPR, is perhaps the most egregious symbol. This has nothing to do with the lives of most of us. As we have seen the last few years, the stock market can skyrocket while most of us live lives of making ends meet. But since the 1980s at least the stock market has been seen as a game we can all play. In the 1990s and then again before 2007, the mania was big enough that a lot of middle class were investing and thinking they were going to get rich off it. Didn’t quite happen that way. Meanwhile, the stock market actually rises the more working people are struggling, since layoffs and low wages and outsourcing mean more profits for the investors.

Meanwhile, as Irwin writes, even with unemployment numbers slightly down (although still not counting those who have left the job market entirely, those who are underemployed, and those who have to put together 2-3 jobs to survive, making this a pretty unhelpful statistic gamed to make the economy look better than it is), wages are terrible and aren’t recovering. Beginning with Occupy and now extending into the Fight for $15 and state-level minimum wage campaigns, people are organizing around fighting these problems. But while the media might cover some of it, it turns back to the stock market as quickly as possible. After all, NPR’s Marketplace needs to assure listeners that capitalism is as healthy as ever.

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