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US workers, kick off Labor Day weekend with some depressing charts

August 29, 2014
August 29, 2014
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This weekend marks the US celebration of the working human, but we temper the Labor Day celebration—as is our tradition here at Quartz—with a reminder that labor just doesn’t pay like it used to. As you can see in the chart above, the share of US national income going to salaries and wages has been falling pretty steadily in the past four decades, and despite some recent gains, hasn’t yet returned to pre-recession heights.

Think of it like this: Every time America produced $10 of income this year, $4.26 went into a worker’s pocket—and the rest went to investors (minus taxes, of course.) Bummer.

This state of affairs is likely why, despite a growing economy and a falling unemployment rate, there’s still not much of a sense that a US recovery has truly taken hold—unless you’re a corporation. Corporate profits as a share of national income are at their highest level since the US government began measuring them in 1947, which is even more amazing when you consider the growth of executive salaries and the rising number of self-employed professionals whose business income isn’t counted in this measure:

Tap image to zoom

Trends like these are driving the debate about inequality in the United States today, and make Thomas Piketty’s theories about the growing advantage of capital over labor so compelling to many, even as economists debate the precise sources and durability of this disparity.

If these charts are giving you more heartburn than your Labor Day feast, consider raising a glass to US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen: Her revolutionary strategy at the Fed is predicated on generating higher wages for workers, a move that, at least in theory, puts some of the Fed’s awesome monetary power on the worker’s side of the scale.

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