According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the 2013 National Average Wage Index (AWI) is $44,888.16 per year. This is an overall arithmetic average, including workers from all geographic areas and demographic classifications. This index is used for the purpose of determining Social Security benefits and is based on net compensation, which are earnings subject to federal income tax. This number provides general insight into what American workers earn, but doesn't tell the whole story.
Impact of Geography on Earnings
Earnings by State
In 2013, the United States Census Bureau reported that the overall median household income for the U.S. was $51,939. However, earnings can vary significantly by region, as indicated by the table below, which is also based on Census Bureau statistics and includes the states with the lowest and highest median household incomes. See AdvisorPerspectives.com for a list of all U.S. states.
|State||Median Household Income||Status|
|Louisiana||$39,622||Lowest in country|
|Arkansas||$39,919||Second lowest in country|
|New Hampshire||$71,322||Highest in country|
|Virginia||$67,620||Second highest in country|
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Note that median is not an arithmetic average; median is the physical midpoint of the data, representing the point at which there are an equal number of occurrences above and below.
Earnings by Metropolitan Area
State is not the only geographic factor that impacts earnings - size of the metropolitan area has an impact as well. Out of the 25 metropolitan areas with the largest populations, those with the highest median household income (per 2013 Census Bureau data) are:
- The Washington, DC metropolitan area - $90,149
- San Francisco metropolitan area - $79,624
- Boston metropolitan area - $72,907
Note that the number for each of these areas is well above the state with the overall highest median earnings, as well as the overall national number, suggesting that people who live in large cities do earn more than those who live in smaller areas.
Earnings by County
Earnings don't just vary by state - county is another important factor to consider. The Census Bureau collects information on all 3,142 U.S. counties through its Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program. The data provided here are based on 2013 statistics.
Counties With the Highest Income
The highest annual median income range for small counties is $79,637 to $117,680, which is significantly above the overall national average. Many of these areas are 'bedroom communities' for large metropolitan areas, with residents commuting from rural home settings to big-city jobs.
- 57 counties across the country are in this range.
- 33 of them (57%) are located in Maryland and Virginia and the Northeast.
- 31 of them (54%) are located in the corridor that includes Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Counties With the Lowest Income
The lowest annual median income range for $21,572 to $37,091, which is significantly below both overall national statistics and the lowest overall state-specific numbers. These counties tend to be rural areas. Depending on family size, this income range may fall below the 2014 poverty guidelines.
- 80% of the counties that fall within the lowest income range are in the South.
- Overall, 1,075 counties had poverty rates in the range of 25.9% and 63%.
- Three-quarters of these counties are in the South, with the remaining quarter located across the country.
- In six southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina), 65 percent or more counties fall within this poverty range.
Impact of Education Level on Earnings
The level of education a person has completed can have a significant impact on earnings. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from 2013 reveal median earnings for a variety of education levels:
|Education Level Completed||Median Weekly Earnings||Median Annual Earnings|
|Some college, without an earned degree||$727||$37,804|
|High school diploma||$651||$33,852|
|Less than a high school diploma||$472||$24,544|
Earnings by Gender
Income data also show differences by gender. Annual household data averages compiled by BLS for 2013 indicate that overall median weekly earnings are $776, which translates to annual median compensation of $40,352. When broken down by sex, the data are:
|Sex||Median Weekly Earnings||Median Annual Earnings|
Earnings by Race/Ethnicity
Income differences also show up along racial and ethnic lines, as indicated in 2013 data compiled by Statistia.
|Race/Ethnicity||Median Household Income|
Looking at average earnings is a complicated topic, with statistics gathered by multiple agencies and data analyzed multiple ways. Reviewing the various ways average and median earnings are compiled can give you a good, general idea of earning expectations in certain geographic locations and based on other key indicators.
If you are trying to get a sense of how much you might expect to earn in a particular profession, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which is a BLS publication, is a good resource. You can get earnings estimates, education requirements, expectations for job growth or decline and more for hundreds of specific occupations.