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Stacked up against 2009 wages, paychecks smaller

If your paycheck still feels smaller than it was before the economic crisis, that’s because it is.

More than seven years after the Great Recession, most Massachusetts workers are just starting to see a rebound in their wages. And for many, despite raises and stronger job growth, paychecks haven’t quite climbed back to their peaks, according to a report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center that is scheduled to be released Monday.

“We are starting to see wage growth,” said Noah Berger, the president of MassBudget, a left-leaning economic group. “But it’s still very tenuous.”

The average hourly wage for the vast swath of the middle class in Massachusetts was $22.25 in 2015, a nearly 3 percent increase from the year before. But adjusted for inflation, it’s still 3.2 percent behind the $22.99 workers took home at a high point in 2009.


The situation isn’t much better for workers at the bottom, who enjoyed one of the biggest bumps in wages in 2015, thanks in large part to a state minimum wage increase that brought hourly earnings to $9.74. But they’re still 2.7 percent behind their earnings in 2009, when they made the equivalent of $10 an hour.

Even the top 10 percent of earners in the state, who pocketed $50.69 an hour in 2015, saw their wages remain flat compared with 2009.

The global economic crisis, which forced employers to shed workers and drop wages, affected most people, Berger said.

But middle- and lower-income workers continue to struggle with stagnant wages, fueling income inequality and widening the gap between the state’s haves and have-nots, Berger said.

The bottom 20 percent of Massachusetts households took home $20,000 in 2014, $2,000 less than in 1979, adjusted for inflation. While middle-income households received a $10,000 annual wage bump, equivalent to a 20 percent increase, during that same period the top 10 percent made $68,000 more, a robust 60 percent increase.


Jeanie Oliver-Allen, a 53-year-old call-center worker who schedules doctor appointments at Boston Medical Center, is still scraping by, even as her wages have increased.

When Oliver-Allen, of Roxbury, started working at the hospital 30 years ago she was making less than $20,000. Now her salary is in the mid-$50,000 range, but with her bills, including her mortgage, taxes, insurance, and college tuition for her daughter, her paycheck is quickly eaten up, she said.

Her average automobile insurance bill is $3,000 a year, because she lives in an urban neighborhood. Her daughter decided to rely on Uber, the ride-hailing service, to get around, because adding her to the insurance policy would cost $2,000.

“Even with what I make today, we still struggle,” she said.

Economists believe that the economy has transformed dramatically in recent decades, creating a wider disparity between high and low earners and making it harder for workers to climb up the economic ladder to greater financial security.

They point to a variety of factors, including globalization, the decline of unions, economic policies that favor top earners, the rise of high-skilled jobs requiring college degrees, and automation, which has shrunk the number of middle-income jobs.

Michael Carr, an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston and his UMass colleague Emily Wiemers suggested in a recent paper that the chances of a worker who starts at the middle of the earnings spectrum moving up to the top 10 percent has declined by nearly 20 percent for Americans who entered the workforce after 1993.


For the bottom 10 percent of earners, the chances of reaching the middle rung has dropped by a nearly equal measure, they found.

“People who start high stay high. The people who start low, increasingly stay low,” Carr said.

Still, some of the changes in the economy are benefiting Massachusetts, which relies more heavily on jobs in technology, health care, and finance, and boasts a workforce where nearly half have graduated from college, an all-time high.

Massachusetts topped the country in median hourly wages for all state workers: $21.19. And the unemployment rate of 4.1 percent is lower than the national average of 4.9 percent, according to MassBudget’s report.

Still, despite stagnant wages for wide swaths of the middle class, there are segments that are thriving in Massachusetts, particularly construction, said Mark Erlich, head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters.

Offices, high-end condominiums, and lab space for biotechnology firms are all rising around the Boston area, translating to more jobs for construction crews, which were hard hit during the economic crisis. Erlich is hearing less about families breaking apart because of financial stress, and more about workers able to afford vacations and home renovations.

“There’s a stronger sense of economic security than there was four or five years ago,” Erlich said.

But there’s also growing recognition that the widening gap between the top and bottom can be harmful to the state’s economic health. One in nine people in Massachusetts lived on less than $24,000 a year for a family of four in 2014, considered below the federal poverty level. And that’s higher than before the economic crisis, according to MassBudget.


In 2014, the state started phasing in a minimum wage increase aimed at bringing hourly earnings from $8 to $11 by 2017.

Some companies and hospitals have boosted starting pay for many of their low-wage workers to $15 an hour within the past year.

“The gap is continuously widening. The $15 an hour does not do it all for workers,” said Tyrek Lee Sr., the executive vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents many health care workers. “But it is a start.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.