Personal Income Growth in America Now Only a Memory

Another startling statistic that gave me pause: government benefits are now required for nearly half of Americans.

In the latest census data, covering the period of the second half of 2010, 48.6% of Americans received social security, unemployment insurance or another type of government benefit payout (Source: Wall Street Journal).

This past recession has hit harder than most. Only seven percent of Americans who lost their jobs during this recession have attained their previous financial position (Source: Rutgers University).

Without government assistance, imagine where we would be. The fact that the government has to help so many people illustrates the damage that this great recession has caused America and shows how far we still need to climb to get ourselves back to where we once were.


Researching these statistics gave me an idea. What if we removed government benefits (government transfer payments) from personal income to see how the average working American is doing?

This is a more pure form of the data, because it calculates income from work—the jobs market—with government assistance excluded.

To give us some perspective, let’s go back to the 1960s and look at personal income excluding government transfer payments. During this period of economic growth, this measure gained anywhere from 10% to 25%—people enjoyed strong personal income growth in a strong jobs market.

How did people do during recent recessions? In the late 1970s recession, the personal income growth rate slowed to just six percent. In the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the personal growth rate dropped to merely three percent, while the recession that visited us in the early 2000s saw a personal income growth rate of five percent in a very difficult jobs market.

How about today and since 2008? Here comes the shock-and-awe part. Not in 50 years has this statistic once showed negative personal income growth, despite having experienced four recessions in that span. Is it different this time? You bet.

In the middle of 2011, real personal income excluding government transfer payments fell 5.1%. Currently it stands at negative 3.6%. Translated, salaries for the average worker are 3.6% lower than they were in 2008. What jobs market?

So, dear reader, not only are close to half of Americas receiving some form of government benefit, but also real personal incomes for those working is actually falling, which means that the average working American is being squeezed by inflation (through higher food and gas prices), while purchasing power is being further eroded by salaries that are below 2008 levels in a stagnant jobs market.

In case we dare to look outside, this is 2012. So I ask, where is the growth in consumer spending going to come from if the average American is witnessing the first post-recession decline in personal income in 50 years?

Where the Market Stands; Where it’s Headed:

Joe Granville came out yesterday and said that the stock market is going to dive 4,000 points this year. (Can you believe he is past 80 years of age?) I’ve been reading other reports that say the bottom is about to fall out of stocks, because the market is oversold and volume is thin.

But when I look at the number of stock market advisors who are bullish vs. bearish (a reliable stock market indicator I follow), it’s not a frightening spread just yet.

We are in a bear market rally in stocks that started in March of 2009. This bear market rally has further upside potential.

What He Said:

“For the economy the message from retail stocks is quite clear: Consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70% of U.S. GDP, is in jeopardy. After having spent like “drunkards” during the real estate boom years, consumer spending is taking the same trend as housing prices, slowing down faster than most analysts and economists had predicted. As news of the recession continues to make headlines in the popular media, the psychological spending mood of consumers will continue to deteriorate, lowering earnings at most high-end retailers and bringing their stock prices down even further.” Michael Lombardi in PROFIT CONFIDENTIAL, January 28, 2008. According to the Dow Jones Retail Index, retail stocks fell 39% from January 2008 through November 2008.