WASHINGTON—When he was asked recently why Americans aren't delighted by their strong economy, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson called it the $64,000 question.
In fact, there's a $65,093-a-year answer. That's the median income of a family of four in fiscal 2006, according to the Census Bureau, and middle-class families are being squeezed between stagnant wages and skyrocketing energy and health-care bills.
The U.S. economy is indeed strong. Although growth is slowing, it's essentially been steady since mid-2001. September's unemployment rate was a low 4.6 percent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached record highs last week.
But through September, the growth in hourly wages was flat or negative for 27 of the previous 29 months, according to Labor Department data. Wages for blue-collar and nonmanagerial workers—80 percent of the work force—are growing at a 3.9 percent annual rate, the Labor Department reported in September. Consumer-price inflation, however, is rising at the same rate. That means prices are rising as fast as wages.
Workers are barely keeping up. Health care, wages and energy prices are consumers' top three economic concerns, according to a Gallup poll in September.
"That has to do with things like stagnant wages, fears of jobs being outsourced, income security. These are on people's minds, particularly in lower- and middle-income areas," said Dennis Jacobe, chief economist in Charlotte, N.C., for Gallup.
"I think it's quite clear to people that their paychecks are being squeezed when they try to meet their family budgets," said Jared Bernstein, the chief economist for the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "There's a disconnect between overall economic performance and paychecks of working families."
Here's how the hypothetical median-income family—half of four-member families earn less, half earn more—is being squeezed.
The typical family paid, on average from 1999 to 2004, about $865 a year to heat a home with heating oil or $586 with natural gas, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.
Last winter, however, it cost $1,496 to heat a home with heating oil and $946 with natural gas. Those are increases of 73 percent and 61 percent.
Then there's gasoline. The nationwide average for a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline was $2.22 on Monday, according to AAA. That's 57 percent higher than $1.41, the average price for a gallon of gas during the second week of October from 2000 through 2003.
Health insurance costs have risen even faster. The premiums workers pay for employer-provided health insurance rose an average of 7.7 percent this year—and have increased 84 percent since 2000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-issues research center.
Average employer-paid family-health coverage now is estimated to cost $11,480 annually, and workers pay about $2,973 of those costs in premiums, Kaiser said. That's $1,354 more per year than workers paid six years ago.
"Health-care costs outpace the cost of just about everything in our economy," said James Klein, the president of the American Benefits Council in Washington. "Most of that cost burden is increasingly shared with workers."
Some 66 percent of the nation's employers have higher employee co-pays this year, 56 percent raised premiums and 56 percent increased deductibles for participants, according to a recent survey by The Society of Human Resource Management.
"With (medical) costs going up, employers are going to be paying more and so are employees," said Lisa Horn, who manages health-care issues for the group.
Costs also are soaring for the 26.7 million Americans who pay for their health plans themselves. Cathy McKee is a North Carolina real estate agent. She's married to a freelance television producer. They have two children and no chronic health issues.
In 2001, the family paid $397 a month for health insurance. Today they pay $717 a month. They're hoping to cut that to less than $500 a month by taking a plan with higher deductibles for medical services.
"How do we afford it? Embarrassingly, we are not saving as much as we should and certainly not as much as we used to," McKee said. "I'm prepping my kids for scholarships, because the college fund is looking mighty lean."
The percentage of Americans with employer-provided health insurance dropped by 5 percentage points from 2000 to 2005, to 59.5 percent.
As insurance grows more expensive, the number of Americans without it keeps growing. Some 14.2 percent had no health insurance in 2000; last year, 15.9 percent lacked it.
As of Jan. 1, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will make its primary health coverage a low-premium, high-deductible plan. Wal-Mart, which employs more than 1.2 million U.S. workers and is an industry trendsetter, says it spends $4.7 billion a year on health care and retirement benefits for employees.
Under its new health plan, new hires will have small premiums deducted from their paychecks, about $10 a week, and will face higher deductibles when paying for medical care. They'll be offered special health savings accounts in which they can set aside money in interest-bearing accounts to save for medical needs.
"Wal-Mart would do well to better communicate to their employees the fact that health coverage is not free at any business. People pay for it," the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative research center in Dallas, wrote in an analysis of Wal-Mart's shift. "Unless the workers want their pay stubs to be smaller, the tradeoff they make is a less generous health plan."
And a tighter middle-class squeeze.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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