Wages Start Low, Lifetime Income Stays Low

ACORN Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Organizing

New Orleans   Joe Fox, an old comrade and friend visiting New Orleans yesterday, dropped by for a cup of coffee at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude, a tour of WAMF-LP, and a bit of nostalgia over the more than forty years we’ve worked with and known each other. We reprised an old story that centered on him, but that I have also repeated for years.

Somehow in the late 1970s fresh out of Harvard Business School of all places, Joe had applied to work at ACORN, and I had hired him not as an organizer, but to build other operations for us in the hopes of creating additional sustainability. Quickly, he was deployed to develop and build our radio station in Tampa, WMNF, and help get our station in Little Rock, KABF get on the air as well. Joe was magic to the task, creating an income stream to build the station between a door-to-door canvass and grants as well as a notorious and perhaps reckless stint of climbing the tower to secure it in Florida before a storm. The story though that we have both told repeatedly revolved around a report that Harvard Business School published in its magazine touting the enhanced income its graduates were going to make with their degree. Someone was the high, and Joe, working for ACORN was the low, pulling down the average that year. Joe reminded me as we talked that when we won the CORAP grant to receive 100 VISTAs in 1978, that ACORN had to raise its salary schedule so that there was no resentment because all of the VISTAs would be paid more!

According to the recently released Census Bureau report annual income has risen for the second straight year to the point the average American household is making just north of $59,000 per year, over a 10% increase in the last two years. Statisticians and economists note that this is still just catch up. According to the Times, “In 1973, the inflation-adjusted median income of men working full time was $54,030. In 2016, it was $51,640 — roughly $2,400 lower.”

Researchers from the Social Security Administration have done a deep dive into their huge database and have begun to report that the loss of income for workers has a lot of causes that are often cited from deindustrialization to automation to stagnant wages in the service sector, but that the issue of lower pay actually starts young and lasts forever, depressing lifetime earnings. What they are finding is that depressed wages at 25 years of age may end up as significantly decreased lifetime earnings even after 30 years of work at 55 years of age. And, it’s been falling like a rock. The Times’ report says that “according to one conservative measure of inflation, in 1967, the median income at age 25 was $33,300; in 1983, it was $29,000. Twenty-five year-olds did better during the 1990s, but then the slide returned. In 2011, the median income for 25-year-old men was less than $25,000 — pretty much the same as it was in 1959.”

I started working around 1967, though I wasn’t 25, but 19. If the median income was $33,3000 then, it was still over $30,000 in 1978, when we were raising wages to about $5000 per annually at starting to match VISTA paychecks, not counting the reserve ACTION held for the end of their service when they mustered out. When Social Security sends me my income statements, and I’m sure Joe laughs at this as well, even though he is a successful businessman in Little Rock running the iconic Community Bakery, it seems to have taken me until 1982 to crack five-figures.

Next time I see him, and so many others, I hope they remember all we accomplished from our youth forward, rather than blaming me for a reduction of their lifetime income.


Please enjoy Earful by the Oil Boom

& Lee Ann Womack’s All the Trouble.

Thanks to KABF.