The middle class brings home a substantially larger share of aggregate earnings in states that have high rates of union membership than in those where fewer workers are organized, a Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) analysis of Census data shows. Amid very high and still increasing income inequality, union density appears to offer some buffer for middle-class Americans.
By comparing the share of total income that went to the middle 60 percent of the population in each state to the level of union membership in each state, CAPAF’s David Madland and Keith Miller found that the states with the lowest rates of union membership return below-average shares of income to their middle-class residents. The income figures come from new Census data, and the union density figures come from UnionStats.com. In the ten most-unionized states, the middle class brought home 47.4 percent of total income. In the ten least-unionized states, that income share falls to 46.8 percent.
Given the size of the state income figures at play here, that 0.6 percentage point gap translates to billions of dollars. Madland and Miller note that in Pennsylvania, 0.6 percent of aggregate income for 2012 “would have equaled over $2 billion, or almost $700 per middle-class household.”
The finding shouldn’t surprise anyone. The rise of inequality over the past three decades tracks closely with the decline of union membership. Stronger unions mean stronger advocacy for policies that support workers, not just on the job but with regard to fiscal policy decisions that help set the path for what level of income inequality there will be.
Income inequality has intensified since the Great Recession officially ended in the summer of 2009. Rich people have captured an increasingly large share of the country’s income over the past three years, and everyone else’s piece of the pie has gotten smaller. While the official poverty rate has held steady since jumping up above 15 percent during the recession, other measures paint a bleaker picture. Nearly half the country is economically insecure, and one in seven American families cannot consistently put enough food on their tables.