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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg December 20, 2019

Bernie Sanders says real wages rose 1.1%. He’s right

In the Democratic debate in Los Angeles, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed back against the idea that President Donald Trump can point to a strong economy as he runs for re-election.

"Trump goes around saying the economy is doing great," Sanders said Dec. 19. "You know what real inflation accounted-for wages went up last year? 1.1%. That ain't great."

According to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, Sanders is correct. The agency reported that real average hourly earnings were 1.1% higher in November compared with 2018. When people talk about real earnings, they mean how much workers make after taking the cost of living into account. When costs rise, it eats away at the increase people see in their paychecks.

There are other ways to track wage trends. For real median weekly wages for all full-time workers, the rise was 1.3% over the course of the year, again using government data.

After the Great Recession, real wages began to grow again in 2014. The highest jump was 2.2% in 2015.

There’s no way to quantify whether a 1.1% increase "ain’t great," as Sanders said. Broadly, the rise is consistent with the long-running economic growth the country has seen. It is not the biggest increase workers have seen in recent years. But looking back to 1980, the average yearly change is .3%. In that light, 1.1% is better than average.

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The trends, however, will vary depending on the sort of workers (all workers, or just production and nonsupervisory ones) and the time period. In general, for the production and nonsupervisory group, real weekly earnings have been rising since the late 1990s, with significant dips during recessions.

There is an encouraging sign for lower wage workers. In 2018, wages rose fastest for those at the bottom end of the pay scale.

With wages, there are many possible ways to slice the data, and no single measure captures the full story.

Our ruling

Sanders said real wages rose 1.1% in the past year.

Government numbers back that up. Whether that "ain’t great," is a matter of judgment. It is not as high as it was in 2015-2017. It is higher than the average since 1980.

We rate this claim True.


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Bernie Sanders says real wages rose 1.1%. He’s right

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