US families make less than they did in 1989

Jason Notte | September 19, 2013

America’s middle class has seen its median income drop by $600 since ‘The Simpsons’ first went on the air.

The Census Bureau’s poverty report issued earlier this week included some income statistics that were a bummer for middle-class families hoping for a return of the good old days of prosperity. Turns out that even in those days, families were bringing in roughly the same as now.

According to the Census Bureau, median annual household income in the U.S. in 2012 was $51,017, less than the 2011 median of $51,100. That 2011 number followed two straight years of decline and is nowhere near the $56,080 average salary from 1999. In fact, 2012’s real median household income is still 8.7% lower than it was in 2007, just before the recession.

Even by those mileposts, the news is discouraging for the middle class. But before those relative boom years just before the crash of the early 2000s and the absolute cratering of 2008, median income in 1989 — right before the recession of the early ’90s — was an inflation-adjusted $51,681, according to The Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

That means middle-class families have not gained any ground in the past 24 years. Worse, they actually lost more than 600 bucks over that time. The price of the average movie ticket then was $4, compared with $8 now. And the price of a gallon of gas hovered around a dollar, compared with the $3.60 average now. But sure, why not dock middle-class families a few Benjamins and see how the economy likes it?

For members of Generation X wondering whether all the angst they had as teens about being  the first generation not to do as well as their parents was misplaced, fear not. It may be only a slight difference and the least of your worries. But middle-class Gen Xers are bringing home less than their parents were when they were sitting the family down for new episodes of “Doogie Howser,” “Family Matters” and the first episodes of a little show called “The Simpsons.”

That American incomes have changed roughly as much as the yellow, four-fingered, ageless cartoon family in the latter show should be cause for concern. Even with only Homer’s salary at the Springfield nuclear power plant to support them, the Simpsons managed to grow from a Bart-led “Don’t have a cow, man” novelty to a Homer-supported national icon with a movie deal.

In Simpsons terms, America’s current middle class has regressed into badly drawn filler for The Tracy Ullman Show.