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Americans Working More, Earning Disappointing Returns

"These diverging fortunes between those at the top and the broad middle class signal that the economy is not working to the benefit of all Americans"

Andrea Germanos, staff writer

(Photo: Bill Dimmick)

If you've found yourself working harder and longer for little payout, you're not alone.

Most U.S. workers, according to a new paper released Wednesday from Economic Policy Institute president Lawrence Mishel examining trends in work hours and wages from 1979 to 2007, have been working more hours but receiving not much more in the way of wages.

The paper, "Vast majority of wage earners are working harder, and for not much more," states:

The key finding is that the average worker worked 1,868 hours in 2007, an increase of 181 hours, or 10.7 percent, from the 1979 work year of 1,687 hours. This is the equivalent of every worker working 4.5 more weeks a year (assuming a 40-hour workweek).

The lowest-wage workers increased their annual work hours by 22%, but their hourly wages only grew by 7.7%.

In contrast, workers in the top tier of wages increased their hours by 7.6% but saw their hourly wages increase by 30.2%.

And while it looks that real annual wages for the whole workforce grew during this time period, "for the bottom 60 percent of wage earners, this stemmed roughly as much from increased work hours as increased real hourly wages," the paper finds.

“The data suggest that Americans started working more hours in part as a coping strategy to ensure some income growth in the face of very slow wage growth,” Mishel said. “In contrast, wages grew quite quickly for top wage earners. Workers, especially those in the bottom sixty percent, have been working much more but have had very modest gains in real hourly wages."

"Among all wage groups," the paper explains, "a general pattern is that the lower the wage, the greater the increase in work hours over the 1979–2007 period."

Workers have been contributing greatly to the economy, the paper notes, but the winners represent a small minority.

"These diverging fortunes between those at the top and the broad middle class signal that the economy is not working to the benefit of all Americans—a fact that policymakers would be wise to recognize," the paper concludes.

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