Average Income in the USA by Family and Household

Why Incomes Haven't Recovered From the Great Recession

Image shows three groupings of people. The first is a woman and two men, the second is a couple, and then a family of three, the third is a home and five faceless people. Text reads:

Image by Evan Polenghi © The Balance 2019

Average income is any statistic that describes how much money an individual, family, or household makes. The U.S. Census Bureau reports average U.S. incomes in September of each year.

The Census reports two kinds of averages. The mean sums up all incomes and divides by the number of people reporting. The median income is the point where half the people make more and half make less. The mean income is usually higher. That's because the few people who make enormous amounts of money skew the results higher. In the mean, they outweigh the many who make low incomes. That gives an inaccurate estimate because it's affected by the income inequality in the United States. For this reason, most reports use the median income.

The Census reports average income for three different groups:

  1. Income per person is the income for each person at age 15 or older. It's more commonly known as income per capita
  2. Family income is average for a family of two or more related people living in a household. They can be related by birth, marriage, or adoption.
  3. Household income is the average income of all people living in a housing unit. It doesn't matter if they are living alone, with a family, or with a group of unrelated individuals. 

Real income removes the effects of inflation. To compare income levels over time, you must use real income. Nominal income ignores the changing cost of living. That's also the difference between real versus nominal GDP.

When looking at average income, you must pay attention to what it measures specifically. Always determine whether it's the mean or median. Find out whether it's per capita, family, or household. Last but not least, be sure you know whether it's real or nominal. 

The Census breaks out average incomes for many different groups. These include age, relationship to the household, race, education, and type of housing. It reports income levels in $2,500 increments. The Census will release the next report on 2018 average incomes in September 2019. 

2017 Average Income

The 2017 nominal median income per capita was $31,786. The mean income per capita was $48,150. The Census Bureau reports those in the Current Population Survey, Table PINC-01.

Real median household income was $61,372. At first glance, it was a new record, but the Census warns that it modified its questions. As a result, the household income was about the same as in 2007 and 1999. The Census reports household income in Table HINC-01.

The federal government uses the median household income to establish poverty levels. That determines eligibility for Obamacare subsidies and welfare programs

Real median family income was $75,938. The real mean family income was $100,400. The government uses the family income for statistical purposes, such as reporting the poverty threshold. The Census reports family income in Table FINC-01.

U.S. Average Income Has Caught Up 

The table below compares the change in income through the 2001 and 2008 recessions. Incomes didn't start improving until 2006, just as the seeds of the 2008 financial crisis were being planted. That's when the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. As mortgages became more expensive, homes prices fell. Mortgage defaults began to rise. But the crisis didn't spread to the general economy until 2008. The Dow hit its peak in November 2007.

Most of the jobs created before the recession were in financial services and construction. Those jobs did not return in 2009. Instead, jobs were in low-paying areas such as retail and food services. Many employers hired temporary or freelance workers instead of offering full-time positions.

To make matters worse, the government did not create jobs. The Bush administration relied on tax cuts and military spending to boost the economy. Neither are good job creators. President Obama had the right idea in spending more on education and public works. Those types of programs are the best unemployment solutions.

After the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republican majority in Congress focused on reducing the debt instead of creating jobs. The unemployment rate fell as people dropped out of the labor force, but incomes did not rise.

In 2013, the Fed did what it could by keeping interest rates low. But those low rates created an asset bubble in the stock market, which hit new highs. At the same time, average income levels briefly rose.

In 2014, new technology in shale oil drilling boosted incomes in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, but incomes fell in those areas when oil prices did. Washington D.C. and the states around it, specifically West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, also improved.

In 2015, income levels rose as unemployment fell. The situation further improved in 2016, when the average income exceeded the pre-recession peak.

Historical Real Median Household Income, Economic Growth, and Unemployment

Year Income Change GDP Growth Jobless Rate Events
1997 $55,218 2.1% 4.4% 4.7% Asian crisis
1998 $57,248 3.7% 4.5% 4.4% LTCM crisis
1999 $58,665 2.5% 4.8% 4.0% Y2K scare
2000 $58,544 -0.2% 4.1% 3.9% NASDAQ bubble burst
2001 $57,246 -2.2% 1.0% 5.7% EGTRRA,  9/11 attacks
2002 $56,599 -1.1% 1.7% 6.0% War on Terror
2003 $56,528 -0.1% 2.9% 5.7% JGTRRA
2004 $56,332 -0.3% 3.8% 5.4% Business growth
2005 $56,935 1.1% 3.5% 4.9% Incomes improve
2006 $57,379 0.8% 2.9% 4.4% Fed raised rates
2007 $58,149 1.3% 1.9% 5.0% Subprime crisis
2008 $56,076 -3.6% -0.1% 7.3% Financial crisis
2009 $55,683 -0.7% -2.5% 9.9% ARRA
2010 $54,245 -2.6% 2.6% 9.3% Obama tax cuts
2011 $53,401 -1.6% 1.6% 8.5% Austerity measures
2012 $53,331 -0.1% 2.2% 7.8% See US 2012
2013 $55,214 3.5% 1.8% 6.7% LFPR drops
2014 $54,398 -1.5% 2.5% 5.6% Strong dollar
2015 $57,230 5.2% 2.9% 5.0% Natural jobless rate
2016 $59,039 3.2% 1.6% 4.7% Presidential race
2017 $61,372 N.A. 2.2% 4.1% See note below


(The percentage change for 2017 is not applicable because the Census changed the question. Table sources: "Current Population Survey," Table FINC-1., U.S. Census, September 13, 2018. "GDP Growth Rate by Year," "Unemployment Rate by Year.")

As a result of the worsening of the average income, 43.1 million Americans lived below the federal poverty threshold. In 2017, that was $24,858 for a typical family of four. This is more than just the "usual suspects," such as illegal immigrants, inner-city poor, and the homeless. This is every third person you meet today. How did this happen?

In 2008, real wages decreased 0.8%. Real wages measure the purchasing power of a family's income. Although wages increased by 3.7% in 2008, prices rose even more.

U.S. wage levels are compressed to compete with pay levels in foreign countries such as China and India. They have a much lower cost of living. At the same time, the education and skill level of foreign labor forces are increasing. Furthermore, technology and the spread of English makes it easier to employ foreign workers. Outsourcing has hit hardest in call centers and computer programming. Capitalism requires U.S. companies to employ these lower-cost, skilled employees. Otherwise, they will lose market share to international competitors.

Does the minimum wage keep you out of poverty? No. If you were earning the U.S. minimum wager and you were the only breadwinner for a family of four, you would fall beneath the poverty line. The minimum wage pays a full-time worker $15,080 a year. That's less than the $11.95 per hour needed to keep a family out of poverty. 

Single people earning the minimum wage cannot afford to rent their own apartment in any major city. They must rent a room or live with roommates. Their best chances to find an apartment are in college towns, small towns in low-income states, and in rural areas.

Congress has kept the minimum wage the same since 2009. If the minimum wage had been adjusted for the cost of living over the last 40 years, it would be $10.41 an hour. If it had kept up with executive level pay increases, it would be $23/hour. Then the minimum wage would be a living wage

At the same time, prices of food and oil increased when the dollar declined between 2000 and 2006. The Clean Energy Act raised prices by diverting corn crops to the production of ethanol. That raised the price of corn, a primary feedstock for beef, also leading to higher food prices.

Middle-Class Income

The U.S. economic crisis spread the pain felt by America's poor and working poor to the middle class. While the cost of food and gasoline rose, wages stayed the same. The resultant squeeze on the middle class led to unprecedented debt levels. Families racked up credit card debt just to pay for their daily lives.

Today, the middle class has the most economic mobility of anyone in America. They can make it to the upper classes. The best pathway is still education. But it is so expensive it has become a form of structural inequality. As a result, it is difficult for the poor to become wealthy. The rags-to-riches promise of the American Dream has dimmed.

Article Sources

  1. United States Census Bureau. "PINC-01. Selected Characteristics of People 15 Years and Over, by Total Money Income, Work Experience, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex," Accessed Jan. 3, 2020.

  2. United States Census Bureau. "Household Income: 2017," Accessed Jan. 3, 2020.

  3. United States Census Bureau. "HINC-01. Selected Characteristics of Households by Total Money Income," Accessed Jan. 3, 2020.

  4. United States Census Bureau. "FINC-01. Selected Characteristics of Families by Total Money Income," Accessed Jan. 3, 2019.