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The gap between men and women's pay is narrowing. It's partly because men's earnings fell

The gap between men and women's pay is narrowing. It's partly because men's earnings fell
A worker toils on a new home in Denver. Experts say falling union membership is partly responsible for a decline in men's pay, after adjusting for inflation. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

The gender pay gap has been narrowing over the last four decades — and women's earnings are now closer to men's. But that is not only because women are doing better. The trend is also in part because men are earning less.

Earnings for men have fallen in the decade since the recession, and are even below levels for much of the 1970s and ’80s.

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Men are still paid about $10,000 more on average than women, according to Census Bureau figures released Wednesday, but the gender earnings gap has grown smaller.

From 1973 to 2017, men's earnings fell by about $3,200, or about 5%, in numbers adjusted for inflation. Earnings for African American men fell even more steeply than those of white men, according to experts.

"We're talking about a 40-year period of people working full time who are not doing better than their fathers and grandfathers did, and are basically doing worse," said Mark Rank, an inequality expert at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's a really striking pattern going on over a long period of time."

Census data show that average earnings for men fell again in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration. They also fell for men in four of the eight years of the Obama administration: 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2016.

Women still face enormous barriers in the labor market, including gender discrimination in hiring and pay, as well as sexual harassment. Women's earnings are still only 81% that of men, essentially unchanged from last year, as inflation-adjusted earnings fell slightly for both genders, according to the census figures.

But women's average earnings have crept upward slowly over the long and short run, in healthy signs of progress, while those of men have not. Since 2010, average earnings have fallen by about $2,000 for men. They have risen by about $500 for women over the same period.

The census figures published Wednesday did show an increase in median household income, which jumped to an all-time high of $61,372. But that increase appears to have been driven by an addition of workers to the labor force, which drives up overall median income even though it does not mean median earnings rise for those who are working, according to Rank.

Experts disagree about the cause of the decline in men's earnings, with some pointing to the decline in manufacturing jobs and others citing the long decline of organized labor in America.

In the early 1980s, close to one in every four men was in a union. Now only about 11% of men are in a union, while 10% of women are unionized. Several studies have pointed to a link between higher wages and union membership, which allows workers to bargain for higher wages.

"The deterioration of unions has had a rougher effect on men's incomes because men had been much more a part of organized labor," said Lawrence Mishel, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

The decline of unions has particularly damaged the economic fortunes of black men. From 1983 to 2015, the wage gap between black men and white men grew by about 3% among older men, according to research by Valerie Wilson, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. About half of that can be explained by the decline of unionization — both in terms of fewer people in a union, and less generous wages for those in them — over that period of time, Wilson found. (The earliest year for which those numbers are available is 1983.)

"The general trend is wages have been flat or declining for white and black men," Wilson said. "But they've fallen more for black men."

Some conservatives cast doubt on the census data showing wage and income declines, with Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute noting they are closely tied to volatile inflation measures that may be artificially lowering long-run earnings. But Riedl also acknowledged a troubling lack of readily available high-paying jobs for men compared to several decades ago.

"It's certainly true that for working-class males a few decades ago, a high school diploma was a ticket to a pretty good union job in manufacturing, and that's not the case anymore," Riedl said. "But there is no great solution — no single lever we can pull — to help working-class men with high school diplomas suddenly gain upper-middle-class incomes."

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