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Americans' stagnant incomes, in two depressing charts

Surprise, surprise: we're not all rich yet.
Surprise, surprise: we're not all rich yet.

Middle-class Americans' incomes barely budged last year. The Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the median household income in 2013 was $51,939.

That's just $180 more than the $51,759 recorded in 2012. This is the first increase since 2006, but it's also not a statistically significant increase. In addition, it's a big decline from 2007's $56,436, as well as the peak of $56,895 in 1999. So the new figures come as good news of the most depressing sort: no, incomes didn't really go up last year, but at least they've stopped falling.

Census Income

Source: US Census Bureau

And though incomes didn't really budge last year for the nation as a whole — and, indeed, they've clearly been stagnant for more than a decade — they are of course changing more for different income groups over time.

Income inequality 2013

Source: US Census Bureau

Keep in mind that this is just income, not assets. That divide is even bigger.

Put another way, the top 20 percent are earning half of all incomes each year, while the bottom 20 percent are taking in 3.2 percent of those incomes.

If you follow the economics news at all, none of this is really new. The issues of wage stagnation and inequality remain at the center of economics conversations, thanks to people like Janet Yellen and Thomas Piketty.

But what this new information from the Census does provide is an annual portrait of how people are faring in the economy — much broader information than any monthly Labor Department report. The last twelve months of jobs numbers have been largely positive, and stock market gains over the last twelve months have arguably been even better.

The recovery is looking more and more solid all the time, which is encouraging. But data like these income figures hammer home the fact that those sorts of gains are slow to become apparent in individual Americans' lives. This may explain why almost half of Americans don't think the recession (which ended five years ago) is over, and why they also remain so pessimistic that the economy will ever fully recover. Things are improving, but it's hard to see it on an individual level.

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