By Michael Sivy
Data released by the Commerce Department last week showed that personal income fell 3.6% in January, the biggest decline in 20 years. The drop was even bigger when taxes and inflation are taken into account. Real personal disposable income fell by 4%, the biggest monthly drop in half a century.
In part, this is a statistical blip. Companies accelerated certain payments – giving year-end bonuses in December rather than January, for example – so that employees could avoid higher taxes going into effect for 2013. But even if that blip is smoothed out, real aftertax income is lower than it was six months ago.
What this means is that the U.S. economy is not merely recovering from the recession more slowly than one might like, but is actually getting worse for many Americans. Despite three-and-a-half years of uninterrupted growth in real GDP and a decline of more than two percentage points in the unemployment rate since 2009, the standard of living is falling for as much as half the population, particularly if you look beyond monthly numbers to longer-term trends.
(PHOTOS: America Copes with a Stagnant Economy)
Commentators assessing a recovery in progress naturally tend to focus on changes from one month or quarter to another. But what really matters is not how the economy compares with where it was in earlier time periods, but how it compares with where it would now be if it were fully utilizing all of its resources. Economists call this level “full capacity,” and it rises over time as the population grows, technology improves and facilities are upgraded.continue reading »