President Trump says median household income is 'the highest level ever recorded'—here's why that's not exactly true

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 4, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters

President Donald Trump's 2020 State of the Union address on Feb. 4 left media outlets fact-checking any statements made by Trump that lacked context, involved exaggeration or were considered altogether misleading.

One such statement: "Real median household income is now at the highest level ever recorded," Trump said while talking about the current state of the economy.

His claim sounds uplifting, but it may be too bold. "It's difficult to compare [the median household income across time]" due to "changes in data methodology," says Elise Gould, a senior economist at Economic Policy Institute (EPI). According to EPI analysis, the median household income in 1999 was higher than in 2018, which is the latest data year available.

"Therefore, 2018 is not the highest it's ever been," Gould says.

Other data comes to the same conclusion. When you adjust data from the U.S. Census Bureau to account for changes that were made to income survey questions in 2014, the "median household income was slightly higher in 1999 than in 2018," USA Today reported on Feb. 5.

To determine the median household income, the U.S. Census Bureau collects data through the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Puerto Rico Community Survey (PRCS). In 2014, this survey had its income questions reworked, and, in 2019, its processing system was altered.

That's why it's advised that you practice caution when attempting to make comparisons prior to 2017. This disclaimer is stated on the U.S. Census Bureau's website.

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Trump also may be taking credit for an upward trend in median household income that started during former President Barack Obama's administration. For nearly 10 years, the median household income was on a downward slope, but in 2015, income levels began to improve. That improvement continued into Trump's presidency, The New Yorker reports.

Regardless of who deserves credit, it is true that median household income in the U.S. has seen growth in recent years. In 2018, the median household income was $63,179, a 2.3% increase from 2016 when it was $61,779, according to EPI data.

It's worth noting that this is not exactly a "blue collar boom," as Trump called it in his address, though. Manufacturing jobs stalled to less than 50,000 in 2019, which is "the worst rate of his presidency and the second worst of the long recovery from recession," The New York Times reports.

Still, there is some good news. Despite the fact that manufacturing jobs dropped in 2019, the overall labor market for women improved and projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predict employment in the U.S. will grow by 8.4 million jobs between 2018 and 2028.

Politics aside, Gould says the median household income outlook appears promising for 2020: "Given that the labor market continues to improve, I expect median household income to increase."

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