Pay vs. Productivity

By:  Economic Policy Institute

Most Americans believe that a rising tide should lift all boats—that as the economy expands, everybody should reap the rewards. And for two-and-a-half decades beginning in the late 1940s, this was how our economy worked. Over this period, the pay (wages and benefits) of typical workers rose in tandem with productivity (how much workers produce per hour). In other words, as the economy became more efficient and expanded, everyday Americans benefitted correspondingly through better pay. But in the 1970s, this started to change.

Since 1973, pay and productivity have diverged.

From 1973 to 2014, net productivity rose 72.2 percent, while the hourly pay of typical workers essentially stagnated—increasing only 9.2 percent over 41 years (after adjusting for inflation). This means that although Americans are working more productively than ever, the fruits of their labors have primarily accrued to those at the top and to corporate profits, especially in recent years.

Why this happened—and how we can fix it

Rising productivity provides the potential for substantial growth in the pay for the vast majority. However, this potential has been squandered in recent decades. The income, wages, and wealth generated over the last four decades have failed to “trickle down” to the vast majority largely because policy choices made on behalf of those with the most income, wealth, and power have exacerbated inequality. In essence, rising inequality has prevented potential pay growth from translating into actual pay growth for most workers. The result has been wage stagnation.

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