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OPINION: Average Kentucky worker’s paycheck not yet benefitting from growing economy

Ashley Spalding

By Ashley Spalding
Kentucky Center for Economic Policy

With all of the claims about how great the economy is right now, the data shows that the average Kentuckian’s wages remained flat in 2018, continuing the trend of nearly the last two decades. Unemployment is certainly lower than it’s been in a long time and the job market continues to tighten in parts of the state, but Kentucky workers are not experiencing the kind of wage growth and improvement in standard of living that such an economy should afford.

The graph below shows that the median hourly wage in Kentucky, in inflation-adjusted dollars, was essentially unchanged at $17.09 in 2018 compared to $17.06 in 2017. It was $17.19 in 2001.

To put into perspective the adequacy of Kentucky’s median wage, we can look at how far it goes toward meeting a basic family budget — the income a family needs in order to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living. The graph below shows it doesn’t go far enough.

For the average Kentucky worker of color, the economic picture is even bleaker, due to systemic barriers to economic opportunity. While the median wage for white Kentuckians in 2018 was $17.79, for black Kentucky workers it was just $14.56. The median wage is also typically much lower in non-metro Kentucky, compared to metro Kentucky.

And we’ve previously noted that for the lowest-earning Kentuckians — with hourly wages at the 10th percentile — earnings have gone up just 5% since 2001, and are not even close to what a family needs to get by.

These concerning data points raise the question “For whom is this a good economy?” It’s clear the answer is not the typical Kentucky worker or the lowest-wage workers in our state.

Ashley Spalding is senior policy analyst with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

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  • Since the legislature stole state workers 5% increment over 10+ years ago, it screws over the workers on the front (salary) end and the back (retirement) end. Employees with more than 10 but less than 27 years feel trapped.