Press Box

Follow the Money

Why can’t the Post and Times find the good in recent economic news?

I generally assume that things are getting better everywhere—except for when my daily newspaper says otherwise, at which point I assume things are getting extremely better. For instance, in 1996 when the New York Times ran its series titled “The Downsizing of America,” which cataloged the loss of good-paying jobs and the accompanying decline in worker status and dignity, I knew that the nation was in the count-down stage of an unprecedented economic boom with great jobs and material success for almost everybody. And I was right.

So when I spotted yesterday’s (Sept. 20) 4,500-word, Page One story in the Washington Post, “As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads: More U.S. Families Struggle to Stay on Track,” by Griff Witte, I assumed that if I dug deep enough, I’d find a happy story untold. And I was right.

The piece, the first of a series in coming months, posits a “changing of the rules for a crucial part of the middle class.” It’s a change for the worse, of course, as good-paying jobs vanish to foreign countries and vaporize a portion of middle-class America in the process.

Witte concedes, however, that the middle class as a group is earning more than it ever has before harvesting the bad news: “But when compared with those at the top, the middle has lost much ground. And many in the middle have dropped well behind their peers,” he writes, as he sketches depressing profiles of several fallen wage-earners.

But EconLog seizes on a big, colorful chart in the Post story to discover the missing good news. Yes, the number of middle-income households * ($35,000 to $50,000, measured in 2003 dollars) in America fell from 22.3 percent to 15 percent between 1967 and 2003. But the two categories below the middle ($15,000 to $35,000, and under $15,000) declined, too, from 52.8 percent of households to 40.9 percent of households.

Where have the vanishing middle, the lower middle, and the poor gone? At the risk of sounding like the Wall Street Journal editorial page singing from a Curtis Mayfield songbook, they’re moving on up! EconLog notes that if the middle-income household is being squeezed out, it’s being squeezed into the higher-income categories. He writes, “the percentage of households with incomes over $50,000 has climbed from 24.9 percent in 1967 to 44.1 percent in 2003.”

Where’s the crisis? If author Witte could wave a magic wand, would he return income distribution to where it was in 1967, when 52.8 percent made less than $35,000, compared to 40.9 percent today?

Economics writer Bruce Bartlett blew the same whistle on New York Times reporter Tim Egan for his Aug. 28 article, “Economic Squeeze Plaguing Middle-Class Families” (reprinted in the Eugene Register-Guard). Bartlett writes, “the ranks of the poor and middle class have shrunk for one reason only—more of them are rich! How can it not be a good thing for society that fewer people are now making low incomes and more are making high incomes?”

Bartlett also summons data that shows an increase in black families with middle- and upper-class incomes. I’m counting the hours until a journalist comes along and uses the same data to decry the growing income disparities between rich and poor blacks.


I ain’t no Dr. Pangloss, even if I want you to read this recent paper on poverty and income inequality from the Heritage Foundation. Send e-mail and income redistribution schemes to may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction, Sept. 22: Originally, the story made three inaccurate references in two paragraphs to “median” income households. The correct description is “middle” income households. (Return to the corrected sentence.)