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How inflation has eaten into Americans' average weekly pay in the past year

While inflation moderated to 8.3% on an annual basis in August, it is still higher than the 5.2% hourly earnings growth Americans saw in the same period.
A customer shops for eggs in a Kroger grocery store
A customer shops in a Kroger grocery store in Houston last month.Brandon Bell / Getty Images file

On paper, the average hourly wage Americans have earned has steadily climbed over the past year, from $30.76 to $32.36.

But when inflation is taken into account, that increase seems to evaporate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans have effectively experienced a 12-month pay cut of $0.31 per hour. Combined with a decrease in hours worked, Americans' inflation adjusted average weekly pay has decreased by only $13.20 from one year ago.

The BLS released data Tuesday showing that monthly inflation had picked up 0.1%, while annualized inflation had climbed 8.3%. The data led markets to tank as investors forecast that the Federal Reserve would maintain its aggressive monetary policy as it works to bring down inflation.

"Clearly the high inflation is undermining Americans’ purchasing power," Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's, told NBC News. While inflation moderated to 8.3% on an annual basis in August, it is still higher than the 5.2% hourly earnings growth Americans experienced over the same period, he said.

Zandi estimates that given current inflation and consumer spending data, Americans are now shelling out $460 more each month than they were a year ago to buy the same goods and services.

A Gallup survey released last week showed that a majority of Americans who responded said inflation has negatively affected their finances.

The situation is even more dire among lower-paid workers. While their wage growth has been faster than that of all workers, the inflation rate specifically calculated for that wage-earning group surged 8.6% year-over-year in August, higher than the 8.3% inflation rate among all consumers, according to BLS data.

If there is any consolation for workers, it is that jobs remain plentiful, said Josh Bivens, director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

"If workers were facing it [inflation] with higher unemployment ... people would have fallen even further behind," he said, adding that the impact of higher prices on Americans' standard of living is indisputable.

"Inflation has reduced people's purchasing power. There's no two ways about it."

Another survey released Monday by the New York Federal Reserve showed that consumers expect that annual inflation will moderate to 5.7% by next year. So wages would have to maintain 5% growth for the next 12 months to beat inflation by that time — something that is far from guaranteed.

"So the erosion in real earnings will moderate, but real earnings will be kind of stuck in the mud," Zandi said. "That's something that's going to create a lot of pain and suffering."