Are you better off than you were four years ago?

Are you better off than you were four years ago? The picture can be ambiguous for many

In the run-up to the first presidential debate, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump urged voters to ask Ronald Reagan's famous question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

Since the economy is one of the most important issues for voters, each candidate uses their own set of data points to create a positive economic picture of their time in office. However, for many voters, the answer will vary widely depending on their geography, occupation, age, race, and lifestyle — not to mention the political lens through which they view each candidate.

Hourly workers, especially food service and hospitality workers, have seen significant wage gains to help offset inflation. However, retirees and full-time caregivers have been unable to take advantage of the strong labor market. Homeowners have seen their wealth grow amid rising home prices. But potential buyers have had to contend with rising rents and interest rates. White households benefited more from benchmark stock prices than black and Hispanic households, with fewer stock market investments.

"It all depends on where you sit," said Julia Pollack, chief economist at ZipRecruiter. "Income inequality has narrowed while wealth inequality has widened. Wages for low-wage workers have risen but have remained stagnant for many white-collar workers.

But while there's no single story on the U.S. economy, NBC News looked at several key categories that directly affect households to show how those indicators have changed in recent years and the impact they can have on voters.


Over the past year, wages have begun to rise faster than prices after about two years of consumers seeing their purchasing power reduced due to inflation rising faster than their wages.

Now, consumers are left with largely the same purchasing power they had four years ago rather than seeing real income gains during that period that would have helped bolster their financial picture.

Since the pandemic started, prices — as measured by the Consumer Price Index — have risen about 21%, and wages have risen by just over 22%, according to federal data. However, while consumers have made some progress, Pollack said that the inflation-adjusted wage growth of about 1% that consumers have seen over the past four years is what they would have typically seen in a year before the pandemic. The salary increase enabled many workers to keep up with their expenses rather than improve their lifestyle or feel like they were getting ahead financially.

Some workers were bigger winners than others, with hourly workers, especially those in leisure and hospitality, seeing the biggest wage gains, while workers and managers were less likely to see their salaries keep up with rising prices.

"Wages are finally, after two years, exceeding the average inflation rate," said Joseph Davis, chief global economist at Vanguard. "This is good news, and that's why the economy continues to expand. But I think the tensions are that wages are not growing at the same rate across the income spectrum."


Helping to raise these wages has been a historically strong labor market, where demand from employers has outstripped the supply of people willing or able to do these jobs. The unemployment rate fell from 6.4% when Biden took office to 4% in May after falling to 3.4% last year, the lowest level in over five decades. During Trump's four years in office, unemployment also fell steadily to 3.5% before rising to nearly 15% during the pandemic.

There are about 1.5 jobs available for every person looking for a job. Hiring was strongest in the healthcare, retail, transportation, and warehousing sectors. Construction also saw a hiring boom, with billions of federal dollars spent on infrastructure, clean energy, and semiconductor projects.

However, Pollack said there were signs that workers' influence was weakening as job opportunities declined from 2022.

"Hiring is very slow," Pollack said. "If you don't have a job or a job you don't like, the job market will be more difficult because there's less hiring."

The outlook for the labor market also varies by race, with the unemployment rate at 5.6% for black workers and 5% for Hispanic workers.


While unemployment is historically low and wages have risen over the past year, housing remains one of the biggest economic pain points for consumers renting or buying a home.

The affordability gap — an estimate of the difference between the median household income in an area and the amount of income necessary to afford the payments on a median-priced home in that area — is near a 10-year high in the United States, according to NBC News. analysis

According to an NBC analysis, a family earning the local median income would be able to afford a home in more than 60% of counties nationwide. Five years ago, when Trump was in office, that typical family could buy a home in just over 90% of counties.

"Wage growth will not rise at the same rate as the average home price over the past two years," Davis said. "So homebuyers are losing ground there despite the tight job market. That's why affordability is low, and the affordability of a new home for first-time homeowners is among the lowest on record."

According to Zillow, rents have risen 31% since the start of the pandemic to an average of nearly $2,000 a month. In April, the average household spent just over 29% of their income on rent, compared to less than 28% before the pandemic.

While rising interest rates and home prices have hurt those looking to purchase a home, homeowners have seen their net worth rise due to rising home appraisals.

However, other housing costs are rising for some homeowners. Insurance rates have risen an average of 23% since 2023, with homeowners in Nebraska, Colorado, and Arizona seeing some of the largest increases. Rising home values ​​can also mean higher property taxes for homeowners.

The food

With the typical household spending about 11% of its disposable income on food, consumers say rising grocery prices have had a particularly painful impact on their budgets. Food prices have risen by about 25% over the past four years while Biden has been in office. Although prices are not rising as much as in 2022, they continue to rise.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, grocery store prices rose 1.1% in April from a year ago, and restaurant food prices rose 4.1%. Rising food prices have disproportionately affected low-income families, who spend about a third of their discretionary income on food, according to a 2022 Agriculture Department survey.

While price increases have slowed and some items' costs have declined from their peak, prices for many key items remain well above pre-pandemic levels. The price of a pound of ground beef rose from $3.87 before the pandemic to $5.15 in May, a pound of bacon rose from $5.50 to $6.81, a dozen eggs rose from $1.50 to $2.70, bread rose from $1.38 to $1.97, and the price of a gallon rose. Milk from $3.20 to $3.87, according to Federal Reserve data.

However, there are signs that prices may fall more broadly. Major retailers and restaurant chains, including Walmart, Aldi, Target, McDonald's, and Applebee's, have announced price cuts recently.

The Biden administration said these higher prices are offset by higher wages, especially for hourly workers. A White House analysis said that for the average non-managerial worker, it now takes the same work hours to buy a typical basket of groceries as it did in 2019.

Gas Prices

Gasoline prices are a constant barometer of the economy for most consumers whenever they stop by a gas station or fill their tanks. Consumers were hit by higher gas prices in 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine roiled energy markets, raising the average price of a gallon of gas to $4.62. Prices have fallen over the past two years to an average of $3.42 as of June 17 — 12 cents less than a year ago and the lowest level since 2021.

However, average prices are still higher than before the pandemic, when a gallon of gasoline was about $2.45 in February 2020.

Patrick De Haan, head of oil analysis at GasBuddy, said the main factor keeping prices above pre-pandemic levels is declining production from OPEC, an organization that includes leading oil-producing countries.

A record amount of oil pumped in the United States helps offset the tightening of OPEC production. Despite the Biden administration's push to transition away from fossil fuels, U.S. oil production reached an all-time high last year, surpassing the previous record set in 2019.

Prices typically peak in the spring when refineries undergo maintenance and should continue to decline throughout the summer and fall unless a hurricane disrupts refinery production.

"If we can get through it without any major events this summer, prices will likely continue to see a bit of downward momentum. Of course, this is also subject to no change in OPEC policy," De Haan said. "Normally, gas prices decline in the fall, just as they drop in the spring. There will be a lot of conspiracy theorists saying, "Oh, this is happening because of the election," on both sides of the aisle. However, they need to remember that the economy drives prices and the balance of supply and demand.

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