38 Million Workers Made Less Than $10,000 in 2010—Equal to California's Population


Half of all wage earners made less than $26,364 in 2010, and the typical American wage is at its lowest level since 1999, after adjusting for inflation, according to payroll data released yesterday by the Social Security Administration.

The numbers in yesterday's report were staggering on their own, but sometimes it helps to put new big numbers next to old big numbers. For example, total official unemployment today is about 14 million. A good way to visualize 14 million is the entire populations of Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., combined. Another geographic visualization of joblessness: If all the people out of work for more than six months -- 6.2 million -- created a new state, it would be the 18th largest in the country, just behind Tennessee and ahead of Missouri.

For yesterday's data, I wanted to provide similar context. Here's what I've got:

1) If you line up all the wage earners in 2010 from smallest annual paycheck to largest, the 24 million folks behind the first person in line making $5,000 could nearly fill the state of Texas.

2) The 38 million people earning less than $10,000 could fill California. 

3) If every American making less than $25,000 voted for one candidate in 2012 (okay, some of them might not be 18 yet, but anyway), that person would get more votes that Barack Obama received in 2008. Their bloc is 72 million-strong.
income states obama.png
I do want to emphasize, again, that these wages to not necessary reflect the returns on a 40-hour week. Some of these are full-time workers who lost their job in 2010, and many of them are probably part-time. It is not easy to determine how many exactly. We do know that about 24 million people worked less than 29 hours a week in 2010, and about 35 million people worked 34 hours a week or less last year.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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