Most Americans Have NOT Come Out of the Pandemic Ahead Economically

Photo by Richard Burlton on Unsplash

There’s this common occurrence where headlines have nothing whatsoever to do with the articles that they top. I’m fascinated by it. There are many ways to write badly but having a severely misleading title should be number one. Normally it is the case where the editor puts their own title on something, often without the author’s knowledge or consent, because it will get more clicks. It’s fun, for me at least, to see how bad the headline is. So, when I saw this headline: Most Americans have come out ahead economically in the pandemic, despite inflation – CNNPolitics I just had to click it. I don’t normally read or watch CNN on account of their being so incredibly crappy as a news organization, but this headline is so clearly contrary to reality, I had to know what the article was actually about.

It turns out the headline is completely apt for what is there. John Harwood wrote an “analysis” saying that most Americans are economically better off than they were before the pandemic. It’s the perfect lesson for why I never read or watch CNN and why you shouldn’t either. The entire piece is either flat out wrong or extremely misleading and, for anyone who saw the headline but didn’t read the piece, I want to explain why.

First, and most obviously, the pandemic isn’t over yet. I know governments are in a rush to relax all the safeguards, but people are still getting sick and dying in significant numbers. Variations, ups and downs, are to be expected. But just because we’re in a relative uptick doesn’t mean this is the snapshot we should judge things by.

Next, and most vexing, is Harwood basically only looks at two things, prices and wages, to make his claim. Essentially, he says that, overall, wages have gone up more than prices since 2020. Whoop-di-doo. He thinks that means that most Americans have come out ahead. One problem is that prices and wages are only two of myriad factors involved in how we are doing economically. Without looking at hours worked, benefits, stress levels, security, mobility, and things like that, we can’t tell much about how people are doing. He doesn’t even mention the damage caused by resume gaps resulting from the pandemic. Or the long-term effects on the young people who had their entry into new careers delayed a couple of years. Nor does he wonder what good a little extra buying power does when ongoing supply chain issues mean there’s nothing to buy. Or the fact that there is still a shortage of service workers. At best, the fact that overall wages have outpaced prices tells us that overall wages have outpaced prices. To try to make anything more out of it is pretty outrageous.

To add insult to injury, Harwood slips in a line that, “The middle 40% of earners, according to the Cal-Berkeley economists, have seen their disposable income erode by 1.1% after inflation over the past year.” He doesn’t explain it in any detail, but let’s take it at face value. Yes, 40% is a minority. But he says the middle 40%. That probably means the 30th to 70th percentile or somewhere around there. In other words, the middle class. They had their disposable income fall while it went up slightly for the bottom 30% and the top 30%. If that’s the case, did the overall rise in disposable income make any material difference in anyone’s life? If someone was making poverty wages and is now making poverty wages plus a nickel, they’re still in poverty. If someone was rich, and they’re now making a tiny bit more, they probably just throw it on the pile. The middle 40% is where a small rise in wages can make a difference, and they’re the ones who didn’t get it.

The moral of the story is: don’t read click-baity headlines hoping they are absurd and good for a laugh. Instead, they may be apt and infuriating.

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