A typical worker cannot afford to support a family anywhere in the United States


The middle-class security once enjoyed by American families is increasingly out of reach. According to American Compass’s newly released Cost-of-Thriving Index (COTI), a basket of major annual costs for families took the typical male worker about 40 weeks to afford in 1985. In 2022, that figure had shot to 62 weeks, driven by stagnating wages and rising costs. This means that in 1985 a single full-time earner could support a family with room to save, but today, a comparable man could work all year and still come up ten weeks short.

COTI provides an alternative to standard inflation metrics, exposing the real pressure faced by American families. Metrics like the Consumer Price Index are valuable for measuring the health of the economy as a whole, but because they adjust for quality improvements and do not account for social norms, they obscure the constraints faced by households. COTI tracks the nominal cost of five major expenses (Food, Housing, Health Care, Transportation, Higher Education) and compares it to nominal weekly wages for a typical male worker, showing how many weeks it would take to afford that same basket over time. The report also details how wages and costs vary across the country at both the state and local level, and considers wages for different demographic groups.

These striking findings are further illuminated by a new American Compass/YouGov survey released today, which finds that the vast majority of Americans see affording comprehensive health insurance, owning a home, and supporting a family on a single income as important components of being in the middle class. They also reported seeing wage stagnation as a real problem: Earning the same inflation-adjusted wages as 50 years ago is simply not what Americans want or expect from our economy and helps explain why men are leaving the workforce and marriage rates are declining.

Click here to read the full Cost-of-Thriving Index report and download an interactive workbook of the data.

Click here to read the American Compass Family Affordability Survey.

Recommended Reading
Ordinary Americans Are Counting the Cost of Thriving

In the Financial Times, Oren Cass discusses the pressure on American families illustrated by the 2023 Cost-of-Thriving Index.

The 2023 Cost-of-Thriving Index

Tracking the catastrophic erosion of middle-class life in America

Why Are So Many Americans Sour on the Economy? Look at This New Data.

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen discusses the Cost-of-Thriving Index’s findings about the difficulty of raising a family in the middle class today.