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American household income finally topped 1999 peak last year
 
 09.12.17

WASHINGTON — In a stark reminder of the damage done by the Great Recession and of the modest recovery that followed, the median American household only last year finally earned more than it did in 1999.

Incomes for a typical U.S. household, adjusted for inflation, rose 3.2 percent from 2015 to 2016 to $59,039, the Census Bureau said. The median is the point at which half the households fall below and half are above.

Last year's figure is slightly above the previous peak of $58,665, reached in 1999. It is also the first time since the recession ended in 2009 that the typical household earned more than it did in 2007, when the recession began.

Trudi Renwick, the bureau's assistant division chief, cautioned that the census in 2013 changed how it asks households about income, making historical comparisons less than precise.

Still, the Census data is closely watched because of its comprehensive nature. It is based on interviews with 70,000 households and includes detailed data on incomes and poverty across a range of demographic groups.

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said that adjusting for the change in methodology, median income still remains below its 1999 peak. Yet she added that the census report shows that American households have made significant economic progress in 2015 and 2016.

"We are definitely pulling ourselves out of the deep hole of the Great Recession," Gould said on a conference call with reporters.

Median household income rose $4,641, or 8.5 percent, from 2014 through 2016. That's the best two-year gain on records dating to 1967, according to analysts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Yet that improvement comes after a steep recession and a slow recovery that left most American households with barely any income increases. The lack of meaningful raises has left many people feeling left behind economically, a sentiment that factored into the 2016 elections.

The report also showed that income inequality worsened last year, extending a trend in place for roughly four decades. Average incomes among the wealthiest 5 percent climbed 5.5 percent to $375,088. Average incomes for the poorest one-fifth of households, meanwhile 2.5 percent to $12,943.

Other measures of Americans' economic health improved. The poverty rate fell last year to 12.7 percent from 13.5 percent, Census said. The number of people living below the poverty line declined 2.5 million to 40.6 million.

That brings the proportion of households living below the poverty line back to pre-recession levels, though it remains about one and half percentage points higher than its lowest point, in 2000.

A family of four with an income below $24,563 was defined as poor last year.

And the proportion of Americans without health insurance fell to 8.8 percent, the report showed, down from 9.1 percent. It is the lowest proportion on record.

The Census report covers 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Robert Greenstein, president of the CBPP, argued that the agenda being pursued by President Donald Trump and congressional Republican leaders would reverse those gains.

The income gains reflect mostly a rise in the number of Americans with jobs and in people working full time, the agency said. That means households were more likely to include a full-time worker. It also suggests that pay raises for those who already had jobs remained meager.

About 1.2 million more Americans earned income in 2016 than in 2015, and 2.2 million more had full-time year-round jobs.

Incomes rose for most demographic groups. African-American median household income jumped 5.7 percent to $39,490 in 2016 from the previous year, the most of any group. Among Latinos, it rose to 4.3 percent to $47,675. For whites, the gain was 2 percent to $65,041.

Asian-Americans reported the highest household incomes, at $81,431, which was little changed from 2015.

Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the CBPP, said the gains among African-Americans typically occur later in an economic recovery as employers widen their searches and step up hiring among traditionally disadvantaged groups.

"The solid economy is helping to close racial gaps," he said. "It won't make them go away, but it is headed in the right direction."

The report found that the gender gap in wages narrowed last year for the first time since 2007. Women earned 80.5 percent of men's earnings, up from 79.6 percent in 2015.

Still, underneath the broad improvements nationwide, pockets of hardship remain. Poverty rates fell in the Northeast and South in 2016 but were mostly unchanged in the Midwest and West.

Una Osili, a researcher at the Salvation Army and a professor of economics at Indiana University, said the nonprofit group reported a spike in requests for health-related assistance in the Midwest last year, driven mostly by demand for opioid addiction treatment.

That happened even in states like Indiana, where the unemployment rate and poverty fell, she said.

In Nevada and some other Western states, the economic recovery has raised housing costs, offsetting some of the benefit of income growth.

In those states, "the recovery is a good thing, but your rent is now higher," Osili said.


Washington
Investigators fault driver in Tesla Autopilot crash
 
 09.12.17

WASHINGTON — Design limitations of the Tesla Model S's Autopilot played a major role in the first known fatal crash of a highway vehicle operating under automated control systems, the National Transportation Safety Board Tuesday.

The board said the direct cause of the crash was an inattentive Tesla driver's over reliance on technology and a truck driver who made a left-hand turn in front of the car. But the board also recommended that automakers incorporate safeguards that keep drivers' attention engaged and that limit the use of automated systems to the conditions for which they were designed.

Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was traveling on a divided highway near Gainesville, Florida, using the Tesla's automated driving systems when he was killed. Tesla had told Model S owners the automated systems should only be used on limited-access highways, which are primarily interstates. But the company didn't incorporate protections against their use on other types of roads, the board found. Despite upgrades since the May 2016 crash, Tesla has still not incorporated such protections, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

"In this crash, Tesla's system worked as designed, but it was designed to perform limited tasks in a limited range of environments," he said. "Tesla allowed the driver to use the system outside of the environment for which it was designed."

The result, Sumwalt said, was a collision "that should never have happened."

In a statement, Tesla said "we appreciate the NTSB's analysis of last year's tragic accident and we will evaluate their recommendations as we continue to evolve our technology." The company added that overall its automated driving systems, called Autopilot, improve safety.

NTSB directed its recommendations to automakers generally, rather than just Tesla, saying the oversight is an industrywide problem. Manufacturers should be able to use GPS mapping systems to create such safeguards, Sumwalt said.

Manufacturers should also develop systems for ensuring operators remain attentive to the vehicle's performance when using semi-autonomous driving systems other than detecting the pressure of hands on the steering wheeling, the NTSB recommended. Brown had his hands on the sedan's steering wheel for only 25 seconds out of the 37.5 minutes the vehicle's cruise control and lane-keeping systems were in use prior to the crash, investigators found.

As a consequence, Brown's attention wandered and he didn't detect the semitrailer in his path, they said.

The Model S is a level 2 on a self-driving scale of 0 to 5. Level 5 vehicles can operate autonomously in nearly all circumstances. Level 2 automation systems are generally limited to use on interstate highways, which don't have intersections. Drivers are supposed to continuously monitor vehicle performance and be ready to take control if necessary.

Investigators found that the sedan's cameras and radar weren't capable of detecting a vehicle turning into its path. Rather, the systems are designed to detect vehicles they are following to prevent rear-end collisions. The board re-issued previous recommendations that the government require all new cars and trucks to be equipped with technology that wirelessly transmits the vehicles' location, speed, heading and other information to other vehicles in order to prevent collisions.

Last December, the Obama administration proposed that new vehicles be able to wirelessly communicate with each other, with traffic lights and with other roadway infrastructure. Automakers were generally supportive of the proposal, but it hasn't been acted on by the Trump administration.

Brown's family defended his actions and Tesla in a statement released Monday. Brown was a technology geek and enthusiastic fan of the Model S who posted videos about the car and spoke to gatherings at Tesla stores. "Nobody wants tragedy to touch their family, but expecting to identify all limitations of an emerging technology and expecting perfection is not feasible either," the statement said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates auto safety, declined this year to issue a recall or fine Tesla as a result of the crash, but it warned automakers they aren't to treat semiautonomous cars as if they were fully self-driving.

While the NTSB was meeting to consider the Tesla crash, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was in Michigan unveiling new self-driving car safety guidelines for automakers. The guidelines encourage companies to put in place broad safety goals, such as making sure drivers are paying attention while using advanced assist systems. The systems are expected to detect and respond to people and objects both in and out of its travel path "including pedestrians, bicyclists, animals, and objects that could affect safe operation of the vehicle," the guidelines say.

There is a 12-point safety checklist, but the government makes it clear that the guidelines are voluntary and not regulations.