Median U.S. household income reached $61,400 in 2017, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday, an increase of 1.8 percent over 2016 that pushed incomes back to their level before the Great Recession.
It was the third consecutive annual hike in the household median, which is generally judged the best income measure because it presents a snapshot of the typical American household. The Census calculations took inflation into account, so these increases represented meaningful gains.
But the increase in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, was considerably slower than during the final two years of the Obama administration. In 2015 the Census Bureau reported that median household income grew 5.2 percent, and in 2016 that it grew 3.2 percent.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers, which lately has sought to cast doubt on official statistics it deems insufficiently favorable, was quick to dispute the Census numbers. In a blog post, CEA said they "understate economic progress" because they don't take into account income and payroll taxes or "non-cash welfare benefits" like Medicaid and housing assistance. The Census calculations do take into account cash transfers such as Social Security and welfare payments.
White House criticism notwithstanding, Wednesday's Census findings were favorable enough to put to rest a frequent complaint by unions that median household income is below its pre-recession level of $61,400 in 2007. Unions remain free to argue that median household income is no higher than in 2007, and that it's still below, if only by a whisker, 1999's historic high of $62,000.
The Census's numbers were adjusted to take into account a 2014 change the agency made in calculating median household income. Because of that change, the Census said, comparing household income numbers before and after 2013 "must be made with caution."
A separate adjustment made by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute put 2017 household income 0.1 percent below its pre-recession level in 2007, a minor difference from the Census calculation.
Wage growth remained slow, and by some measures actually declined in 2017, even as household income rose. Median earnings for year-round, full-time work fell 1.1 percent, after inflation, the Census reported. The household income gain appeared to reflect an increase in the number of hours worked. The Census Bureau said the earnings decline was not statistically significant.
The agency reported no statistical change in income inequality in 2017, according to various measures. But Elise Gould, senior economist at EPI, said the report showed income growth during the final two years of the Obama administration was more broad-based than in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, when the highest gains were more heavily weighted toward the top.
“The retreat from broad-based income growth likely contributed to stalled progress in closing the nation’s still-large and persistent racial income gaps,” said Valerie Wilson, director of EPI’s program on race, ethnicity, and the economy, in a written statement.