Financial adviser Doug Short has published his take on Sentier Research's monthly look at median household income for February. The condensed version: Nearly five years after the Great Recession officially ended, median income is up, but it's still not up to where it was at its peak in January 2008, just after the recession began. Here's one way to look at the numbers:
But there is a big difference between nominal dollars (the red line) and real dollars (the blue line), that is, inflation-adjusted dollars. We all know from personal experience that a 2001 dollar is not worth the same as a 2014 dollar. There's considerable dispute over exactly how inflation should be calculated, but even using the Consumer Price Index, which some critics say underestimates the true inflationary increase, the damage can be seen. Median annual inflation-adjusted income is 6.8 percent lower—about $3,892—than it was in January 2008. Not chicken feed unless you're a one-percenter.
We know why. Fewer people are working. On average, those who are working, even if they are employed at quite similar jobs as they were before the recession clobbered them, are getting paid less. (Their benefits are lower, too, but that's a chart for another day.)
Short says that he also likes to view the median income changes through a different lens:
The next chart is my preferred way to show the nominal and real household income—the percent change over time. Essentially I have taken the monthly series for both the nominal and real household incomes and divided them by their respective values at the beginning of 2000. The advantage to this approach is that it clearly quantifies the changes in both series and avoids a common distraction of using dollar amounts ("How does my household stack up?"). [...]
The stunning reality illustrated here is that the real median household income series spent most of the first nine years of the 21st century struggling slightly below its purchasing power at the turn of the century. Real incomes (the blue line) hit an interim peak at a fractional 0.7% in early 2008, far below the nominal illusionary peak (as in money illusion) of 27.2% six months later and now at 30.3%, an all-time high. In contrast, the real recovery from the trough has been depressingly slight, although at first blush the latest monthly data, as I mentioned above, is the second largest of the century so far.