An ‘average’ American income may no longer cut it

An average American income isn’t enough for a comfortable living in 2023, according to two recent reports.

The typical U.S. family earns about $71,000 per year, according to the Census. Yet, the average American believes a family needs at least $85,000 in annual household income to get by, according to a recent Gallup poll.

That finding tracks with a recent study from SmartAsset, a financial technology company, which found the average American worker needs $68,499 in after-tax income to live comfortably. (That works out to around $85,000 in total income, assuming a 20-percent tax hit.)

The two releases point to the same conclusion: Many Americans earn too little in 2023 to attain a decent standard of living in their communities.

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American households are feeling the pinch after three years of relentless economic headwinds.

Inflation, a negligible factor in recent years, surged to 5 percent in 2021 and 8 percent in 2022. It stands now at 6 percent, according to federal data for the first quarters of 2022 and 2023.

Rising prices prompted an unprecedented run of interest-rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, lifting the benchmark federal funds rate from effectively zero to around 5 percent in little over a year.

All of this came amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed the nation’s jobless rate close to 15 percent at the height of the national lockdown in 2020.

“We’re just coming out of this really unusual time when we had pandemic scarcity, we had loss of work. And I think it’s sort of distorted perceptions about the cost of living,” said Peter C. Earle, an economist at the American Institute for Economic Research. “Lockdowns were a sort of existential experience for a lot of people.”

The Gallup poll, taken in April, found that 30 percent of Americans believe a family needs a six-figure income to “get by in your community.” Only 14 percent of respondents said a household could make do on less than $50,000, and even that threshold is $20,000 higher than the federal poverty line for a family of four, $30,000.

“I think the real crux of this issue is, what does it mean to quote-unquote get by?” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist and president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank.

Lower-income families, earning less than $40,000 per year, told Gallup pollsters a household needs $66,310 a year to get by, on average. Upper-income households, earning $100,000 or more, said nothing short of $100,000 would suffice.

“There’s lots of other data that says that people whose incomes are relatively high are living paycheck-to-paycheck,” Holtz-Eakin said.

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Ten years ago, in an earlier Gallup poll, the average American believed a household could get by on $58,000 a year. That number exceeded the median household income at the time, $52,250.

The gap seems to be growing between what Americans earn and what they consider a sufficient income. The Gallup figure from 2013, $58,000, was about 10 percent higher than the median household income for that year. The 2023 Gallup figure, $85,000, exceeds the current median income by about 20 percent.

A lot has changed in a decade. In 2023 America, the average family might reasonably expect the price of groceries and gas to climb by 5 percent or 10 percent per year into perpetuity. The average homeowner might assume mortgage rates will remain in the 5-percent to 7-percent range for the foreseeable future, after a decade of historically low rates.

Therefore, American families would have good reason, economists say, to dial up their expectations for what it takes to live comfortably.

Salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation. Rising interest rates have pushed up housing costs. The SmartAsset report found that the average income to maintain a “comfortable lifestyle” rose by 20 percent between 2022 and 2023, from $57,013 to $68,499 in take-home pay, in the 25 largest metro areas.

That report, derived from MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, assumes the average family will allocate half of its after-tax income to basic living expenses, 30 percent to discretionary spending and 20 percent to savings and debts.

By that formula, a resident would need to clear $84,000 a year to live comfortably in San Francisco, $78,500 in New York and $76,000 in Washington, D.C., the study found.

Looking at actual salaries in those cities, it would appear that many residents do not live comfortably. Median per-capita income is about $124,000 in San Francisco, $85,000 in New York and $81,000 in D.C., according to the Census. Those are pre-tax figures: take-home pay ranges much lower.

One key factor in rising living costs is spiraling housing expenses. Monthly rents have outpaced inflation. Last spring, the median monthly asking rent surpassed $2,000 for the first time, according to Redfin.

Housing prices, meanwhile, surged by more than 40 percent in two years, from an average of $383,000 in early 2020 to $553,000 in late 2022, according to federal data. The figure slipped to $516,500 this year, as higher mortgage rates sapped purchasing power.

Cars, too, are becoming luxury purchases. The average price for a new vehicle hit $49,500 at the end of 2022, up from $38,948 three years earlier, according to the Kelley Blue Book.

Vehicle prices rose partly because of supply-chain kinks and pandemic shutdowns. Another factor was the demanding American consumer. Buyers pushed up prices by consistently choosing more expensive SUVs and tricked-out trucks over value-priced sedans.

“There’s a lot of debate about how much our expectations are feeding inflation,” said Lisa Gennetian, an applied economist at Duke University.

Homebuyers are seeking ever-larger homes. The average new home grew by 1,000 square feet between the mid-1970s and mid-2010s, according to an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute.

The same principle applies in other areas of family life, Gennetian said. An affluent household might consider private school part of a basic annual budget, while a less wealthy household might struggle to fulfill the fall supply list at public school.

“For some people, private tutoring for my kids, that could be part of my standard of living,” Gennetian said. “Other people, they might be thinking about having a running car.”

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