Sunday, December 17, 2017
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PolitiFact: Just a few weeks of auto worker's wage paid a year of college 50 years ago

The statement

"Fifty years ago, the average GM employee could pay for a year of a son or daughter's college tuition on just two weeks' wages."

Martin O'Malley, Democratic presidential candidate, Jan. 14 in a column on Medium.com

The ruling

According to the U.S. Education Department, average undergraduate tuition and fees — excluding room and board — in the 1965-1966 school year was $607 per year for a four-year college (public and private) and $203 for a two-year college.

According to an article in the Aug. 25, 1964, edition of the Chicago Tribune, the average hourly wage in the auto industry that year was $3.01. That grew a bit after a new union contract was negotiated later that year, but a figure in that ballpark is about right for the time frame O'Malley was talking about, said Kristin Dziczek, director of the industry and labor group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. Historical wage data from Ford, for instance, shows that the base wage for a "major assembler" was $2.91 an hour in 1965.

Dziczek noted that workers in durable-goods manufacturing averaged 44 hours per week in 1965, with time-and-a-half for the final four hours. So a $3.10-an-hour wage (accounting for the increase in the 1964 UAW contract) would work out to $148.80 per week, or $297.60 for the two-week period O'Malley cites.

So if you ignore taxes — a questionable policy, but one we'll grant O'Malley for the sake of argument — then two weeks of average GM pay would have been enough to pay for one year at the typical two-year college in 1965. But it would not be enough to pay for a year at a typical four-year college. That would take a little more than four weeks' work.

The O'Malley campaign said it took the wage number from a column by University of California at Berkeley economist Robert Reich, who also served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. In 2014, Reich wrote, "Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today's dollars."

But that works out to $4.66 an hour in 1965 dollars, and contemporary evidence suggests that wage is about 50 percent too high.

Meanwhile, on the tuition side of the equation, the O'Malley campaign said that one year of in-state, undergraduate tuition at the University of Iowa in the 1964-1965 school year cost $340, and that this was the case for other states, as well, such as New Hampshire.

However, if you use the $3.10-an-hour wage, then two weeks' pay, even when untaxed, would not quite cover a year's in-state tuition at the University of Iowa.

It's fair to note that O'Malley has a point about the larger question. Namely, it was a whole lot more realistic to be able to pay for a year of tuition with just a few weeks of blue-collar income in 1965 than it is now.

During the 2012-2013 school year, a year's tuition at the average four-year college was $14,101, and the base wage at Ford for a major assembler was $28.13 an hour. If you include overtime pay, then two 44-hour weeks at that wage (without setting aside anything for taxes) works out to about $2,700, or less than 20 percent of the one-year average tuition cost. At that rate, it would take more than 10 weeks' work, including some overtime, to pay for a year's worth of tuition.

We should note that the rise of college tuition costs is the bigger culprit here. In nominal dollars, auto worker wages have grown ninefold since 1965. But average four-year college tuition is up 23 times from what it was in 1965.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

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