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This article appeared in Left Business Observer #65, August 1994. It was written by Doug Henwood, editor and publisher. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.
It's known to virtually everyone but Phil Gramm and Wall Street Journal editorialists that the middle income ranks have been thinning in the U.S. for well over a decade, to swell the extremes of rich and poor. But this picture is just an average, and as is often the case with averages, there's lots of action hidden under its surface.
In a soundbite, men have been doing the hollowing out, while women have been filling in. The charts at the center of this page, which are based on data presented in an article by Paul Ryscavage in the July 1994 Monthly Labor Review (published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS]), clearly show two contradictory trends. Between 1979 and 1992, the share of men earning middle-level wages defined in the chart caption fell from 53% to 45%, while the share of women falling into the same group rose from 27% to 38%. While men were leaving the middle, they filled the two extremes. The share of women earning the lowest pay stayed flat, however, while the next-lowest category shrank, and the middle and upper two ranks expanded. In other words, for men, the experience was one of polarization; for women, upscaling.
Ryscavage's article features the changes between 1979 and 1989, because both years were late in business cycle expansions, just before the onset of a slump, while 1992 data reflects the 199091 recession. This is the scholarly thing to do. Journalism, however, demands maximum up-to-dateness, which is why the 1992 figures are shown here. In deference to scholarly precision, it should be said that the recession had little impact on the distribution of male earnings, while the upscaling continued among women.
Several other stories lurk behind the gender averages. The hardest-hit group of all and here Ryscavage's figures cover only 1979