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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

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March 23, 2021

Hourly and Weekly Perspectives on Wage Growth during the Pandemic

Despite record-setting job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, median growth in the hourly rate of pay for those who stayed employed has held up remarkably well, which we can see in the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (see chart 1).

Chart 1 of 4: Wage Growth Tracker

The Wage Growth Tracker compares individual hourly wages in the current month with what the same individual's hourly wage was 12 months earlier and calculates the change. The fact that the median wage growth has not slowed, despite the increase in unemployment, suggests that the pandemic's impact on the labor market has been quite unusual.

During the Great Recession, the slowing in median hourly wage growth coincided with a large increase in the share of workers reporting that their hourly rate of pay was unchanged from a year earlier. As chart 2 shows, the share of workers reporting zero change in their hourly rate of pay has ticked up a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but so far, what we see differs from observations we made during the Great Recession.

Chart 2 of 4: Share of Workers Reporting No Change in Hourly Rate of Pay

Why did the COVID-19 pandemic have a relatively smaller impact on median hourly wage growth compared to the Great Recession? One explanation is that the supply of unemployed job seekers far exceeded job vacancies in the earlier recession. That is, employers typically received many more applicants for each available position. As chart 3 shows, at the Great Recession's peak, there were 6.5 unemployed workers for each job posting and 5.7 unemployed not on temporary layoff for each job posting. I think unemployed workers not on temporary layoff is a more useful measure of unemployed job seekers because those on temporary layoff expect to be recalled by their employer and hence are not necessarily looking for another job. Contrast that with January 2021, when there were 1.5 unemployed workers for each opening and 1.1 unemployed workers not on temporary layoff for each job vacancy. In this sense, the labor demand and supply during the COVID-19 pandemic has been more in balance than during the Great Recession. Compared with the Great Recession, apart from the period during the initial lockdown, total vacancies by firms has scaled back relatively modestly during the pandemic while the number of workers looking for a job has increased by less.

Chart 3 of 4: Number of Unemployed per Job Vacancy

Nonetheless, during both the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers who remained employed have experienced an involuntary reduction in their work hours, which has dragged down workers' weekly paychecks even when their hourly rate of pay hasn't fallen. In February 2021, about 6.5 million workers were classified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as working part-time for economic reasons—almost 2 million more than in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit the U.S. economy. For this reason, I've constructed an alternate version of the Wage Growth Tracker, which shows the median growth of individual weekly earnings. This new measure uses the same data (from the Current Population SurveyOff-site link, jointly administered by the BLS and the U.S. Census Bureau) as the hourly earnings measure, and I show both series in chart 4 for comparison.

Chart 4 of 4: Wage Growth Tracker

Generally, the two series move in tandem, with the weekly series slightly outpacing the hourly series during economic expansions as hours worked tend to rise. However, as we see here, during both the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced hours worked each week lowered many workers' median growth in weekly earnings relative to hourly earnings.

As the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, watching both the hourly and weekly versions of the Wage Growth Tracker will be useful. As fewer worker face reduced hours, I expect to see median weekly wage growth recover and at least match the pace of hourly wage growth. A tighter labor market should result in higher wage growth on both an hourly and weekly basis. I'll write about the developments using new Wage Growth Tracker data we'll post soon, so check back.

Note: If you are interested in tracking the hourly and weekly versions of the Wage Growth Tracker you can do that here, or via the EconomyNow app, which also features several other Atlanta Fed data tools.

January 16, 2020

Do Higher Wages Mean Higher Standards of Living?

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A recent macroblog post used Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker data to observe that the hourly wage of the lowest-paid workers has rebounded in recent years after declining for a decade. The chart below depicts this finding, showing the median hourly wage of the lowest-paid 25 percent of workers in the Tracker sample relative to the median for all workers.

Relative Median Wage: Lowest Wage Quartile

Moreover, the post showed that this recovery was not just a story about states and localities increasing their minimum wages. It also appears that there has been a significant tightening in the labor market for unskilled or low-skilled jobs.

Taken at face value, this is good news for workers employed in low-wage jobs. But here's the rub: the median wage in the first quartile is still low—$11.50 in 2019, or 55 percent of the overall median wage. Moreover, these are hourly wages before taxes and transfers (we'll get back to this shortly). They don't represent what is happening to these workers' ability to make ends meet, which depends crucially on income after taxes and transfers.

For households at the bottom of the income distribution, means-tested transfers can play an especially important role. Means-tested transfers—cash payments and in-kind benefits from federal, state, and local governments designed to assist individuals and families with low incomes and few assets to meet their basic living needs—represent about 70 percent of income before taxes and transfers for households in the bottom quintile of the income distribution, according to a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office. However, the size of the transfers tends to decrease as earnings increase, and they stop altogether when a worker exceeds income- and asset-eligibility thresholds.

The interaction between changes in earnings and various means-tested public assistance programs is an important public policy issue, and it is one that staff at the Atlanta Fed are studying. In a March 2019 macroblog post, David Altig and Laurence Kotlikoff reported that this interaction results in low-income households facing a higher median effective marginal tax rate than high-income households. For low-income households with children, this effect can be especially severe because the presence of children increases the value of programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program) and the likelihood of enrollment in additional programs such as federally subsidized child care. (You can read further research on the effective or implicit marginal tax rates of low-income households at Congressional Budget Office (2016), Romich and Hill (2018), and Chien and Macartney (2019).)

To illustrate the point, the Atlanta Fed team studied the case of a hypothetical single mother with two young children who works in a near-minimum-wage, full-time job and whose basic living expenses are helped by various transfer programs. One avenue to improving her family's standard of living is if she were to return to school and pursue a higher-paying career as a nurse. Over the long term, the net gains from education and career advancement are unambiguous. However, the Atlanta Fed's analysis shows that as long as her children still require care, the reduction in payments from various benefit programs could partially or even completely offset the gains. Look for an Atlanta Fed paper discussing this very real dilemma coming soon on the Bank's Economic Mobility and Resilience webpage.

What do findings like this mean for interpreting the Wage Growth Tracker's evidence that people in the bottom part of the wage distribution are experiencing relatively larger wage gains? Perhaps there is a bit less to celebrate than meets the eye. Around 46 percent of these individuals are in households with children. To the extent that they also participate in means-tested public assistance programs, the relative increase in their family's standard of living could be much less than the size of their pay raise would suggest.

December 16, 2019

Faster Wage Growth for the Lowest-Paid Workers

On November 25, Fed chair Jay Powell gave a speech titled "Building on the Gains from the Long Expansion," in which he observed that

Recent years' data paint a hopeful picture of more people in their prime years in the workforce and wages rising for low- and middle-income workers.

In making this point, Chair Powell used a cut of the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker that looks at the median annual wage growth of workers in the lowest 25 percent of the wage distribution. As the following chart shows, the lowest-paid workers have been experiencing higher median wage growth (the blue line) in the last few years than workers overall (the green line). This reverses the pattern seen in the wake of the Great Recession, when median wage growth for lower-paid workers slowed by more than for workers overall.

Chart 1: Median Wage Growth

The faster median wage growth for lower-wage workers shown in chart above has also translated into an increase in the relative median wage level of these workers. To see this, the following chart shows the median wage level for those in the lowest wage quartile relative to the median for all workers in the Wage Growth Tracker dataset.

Chart 2: Relative Median Wage: Lowest Wage Quartile

The chart shows that for workers in lower-wage jobs, their relative median wage over the 2000s has deteriorated, and that erosion has reversed course only in the last few years. This reversal may reflect increasing tightness of the labor market for lower-wage jobs relative to other jobs over the last few years. The challenge of filling jobs requiring few skills is something we have been hearing about a lot recently from the businesses we talk to (for example, see here), and this sort of challenge could be behind higher wages for those workers. However, several state and local governments have increased the minimum wage in recent years, which would also push up the relative pay for those in the lowest-paid jobs.

Are the observations in the previous chart solely attributable to minimum wage increases? To get some idea, the next chart contrasts the relative median wage in states that increased their minimum wage at some point between 2014 and 2019 to those that did not. The blue line is the relative median wage of the lowest quartile in the 28 states that increased their minimum wage (23 states introduced new minimum wage levels, and five implemented increases legislated before 2014), and the green line is relative median wage for the states that did not increase their minimum wage.

Chart 3: Relative Median Wage: Lowest Wage Quartile

We would expect to see a rise in the relative median wage in the states that raised their minimum wage, and indeed we do. For the group of states that increased minimum wages (the blue line), the relative median wage is now closer to that of states that did not increase their minimum wage (the green line). Interestingly, though, even in the "no increase" states, the relative median wage has improved, suggesting that the increased tightness of labor markets, or some other factor than hikes in state minimum wages, is playing a role in pushing up the pay for those in lower-wage jobs. Consistent with the message of Chair Powell's speech, the good news is that there is scope to continue to build on the gains from the long and ongoing expansion for workers at the bottom end of the wage distribution.

November 25, 2019

Is Job Switching on the Decline?

Here's a puzzle. Unemployment is at a historically low level, yet nominal wage growth is not even back to prerecession levels (see, for example, the Atlanta Fed's own Wage Growth Tracker). Why is wage growth not higher if the labor market is so tight? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal posited that the low rate of job-market churn likely explains slow wage growth. Switching jobs is typically lucrative because it tends to be going to a job that better uses the person's skills and hence offers higher pay. Job switchers can also help improve the bargaining position of job-stayers by inducing employers to pay more to retain them.

But is the job-switching rate really lower? A paper that Shigeru Fujita, Guiseppe Moscarini, and Fabien Postel-Vinay presented at the Atlanta Fed's 10th annual employment conference looked at a commonly used measure of employer-to-employer transitions. That measure, developed by Fed economists Bruce Fallick and Charles Fleischman in 2004, uses data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) on whether a person says that he or she has the same employer this month as last month. Job switchers are those reporting having a different employer. As the following chart shows, the Fallick and Fleischman data (the yellow line) support the Wall Street Journal story that the rate of job switching is much lower than it used to be.

Rate of Employer-to-Employer Transitions (12-month moving average)

Source Fujita et al. (2019)

However, Fujita and his coauthors discovered a potential problem with these data, noting that the CPS doesn't ask the same-employer question of all surveyed people who were employed in the prior month. Importantly, the incidence of missing answers has increased dramatically since the 2006, as the following chart shows.

Missing Answers to Question on Employer-to-Employer Transitions

Source Fujita et al. (2019)

If these missing answers were merely randomly distributed among job switchers and job stayers, then it wouldn't matter much for the Fallick-Fleischman measure. But Fujita et al. found that the missing answers were disproportionately from people who look more like job switchers in terms of observable characteristics such as age, marital status, education, industry, and occupation—making it likely that the Fallick-Fleischman measure undercounts job switchers.

The researchers developed a statistical adjustment to the Fallick-Fleischman measure to account for this bias (the blue line label our series in the following chart—this is the same as the first chart) that tells a somewhat different story than the original measure (yellow line).

Rate of Employer-to-Employer Transitions (12-month moving average)

Source Fujita et al. (2019)

In particular, the adjusted job-switching rate is only moderately lower than it was 20 years ago and has fully recovered from the decline experienced during the Great Recession. Although a decline in job switching might be a factor in the story behind low wage growth, based on this adjusted measure it doesn't seem like the dominant factor. The low wage growth puzzle remains a puzzle.