The incomes of typical Americans rose in 2015 by 5.2 percent, the first significant boost to middle-class pay since the end of the Great Recession, the Census Bureau reported on Tuesday morning.
In addition, the poverty rate fell by 1.2 percentage points, a statistically significant amount. There were 43.1 Americans in poverty on the year, 3.5 million fewer than in 2014. The share of Americans who lack health insurance continued a years-long decline, falling 1.3 percentage points, to 9.1 percent.
The numbers, from the government’s annual report on income, poverty and health insurance, suggest the recovery from recession is finally beginning to lift the fortunes of large swaths of American workers and families.
Real median household income was $56,500 in 2015, the bureau said, up from $53,700 in 2014. The gain was a combination of rising wages in the economy – spurred by a labor market where unemployment is falling and employers are being forced to compete more for workers – and low inflation.
The gains brought median incomes nearly back to their levels before the recession, after adjusting for inflation, though they remain below 1999 levels.
The gains outpaced even the most optimistic expectations from many economists.
Several measures of wage growth had suggested that 2015 was strong for wage growth. Other indicators had pointed to an improvement for the Americans who are the worst off. The unemployment rate had declined to 4.9 percent as of last month. Since 2014, increases in wages have accelerated for the one in five workers earning the least, according to new research by Bank of America. In this group, wages are now increasing at roughly 4 percent year over year.
Last week, the Agriculture Department released its annual data on hunger in the United States, showing that food insecurity declined substantially last year for the first time since the recession. The share of food-insecure households was 12.7 percent last year, down from 14 percent in 2014. Before 2014, food insecurity had remained stubbornly persistent, improving only modestly from an apex of 14.9 percent in 2011. The Agriculture Department defines food security as having access to “enough food for an active, healthy life.”
Max Ehrenfreund contributed.