The Battered Incomes of the Self Employed

Self-employed people have more variable income than those who work for others, economic theory explains. When times are good, their earnings often rise more than the incomes of those receiving a paycheck. But when times are bad, their pay takes a bigger hit.

The 2010 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances – a triennial survey of a random sample of American households conducted for the Fed by a University of Chicago-based survey research group – shows the large drop in self-employment income that occurred during the recent economic downturn.

According to analysis conducted by Federal Reserve economists Jesse Bricker, Arthur Kennickell, Kevin Moore, and John Sabelhaus, median income declined nearly 6 percent in real terms between 2007 and 2010 for families headed by a wage or salary worker, but nearly 19 percent for those headed by a self-employed person.

Average income was little better. For households headed by a wage employed person, mean income in 2010 was 97 percent of what it was in 2007, when measured in inflation-adjusted terms. But for households with a self-employed head, it was only 74 percent of its level three years earlier.

Median Household Income in Thousands of 2010 Dollars

Source: Created from data from the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances

The figure above shows the median income for the two types of households in the last four FRSCFs. As you can clearly see, the income of households with a self-employed head contracted severely between 2007 and 2010 and more than erased the gains made between 2004 and 2007. Moreover, the gap in median income between self-employed households and households employed by others shrank considerably between 2007 and 2010.

The economics here are straightforward. It’s not easy for companies to cut salaries. Not only are the size of paychecks sometimes governed by contracts, but companies don’t like risking the hit to worker performance that comes when people see their wages contract.

The self-employed, however, take their compensation in the form of profits – the difference between their revenues and their costs. If their revenues shrink and they can’t cut costs by an equivalent amount, their incomes fall.

One effect of the Great Recession is a decline in the fraction of income that American households receive from running their own businesses. As the Fed economists who analyzed the 2010 FRSCF explain, the fraction of household income that comes from ownership of businesses and farms and self-employment dropped to 12.2 percent in 2010 from 13.6 percent in 2007.

While the fraction coming from interest and dividends remained constant, the share coming from wages and salaries, social security, pension, other retirement income and other transfer of income increased.

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Scott Shane Scott Shane is A. Malachi Mixon III, Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of nine books, including Fool's Gold: The Truth Behind Angel Investing in America ; Illusions of Entrepreneurship: and The Costly Myths that Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By.

9 Reactions
  1. Thanks for this data, Scott.

    it certainly makes sense, and is not surprising at all.

    Hopefully things will turn around…a lot, in 2013.

    The Franchise King®

  2. I am not surprised by this, but hadn’t seen the actual data trends.

  3. Typical risk/reward trade-off.

  4. It’s true, small business do take a hard hit in down times. That’s why I think its vital for EVERY small business, especially the offline businesses to have a online present with an internet marketing and monetization plan in place. This will do wonders for keeping their income intact so the hit wont be as hard. Thanks for sharing this post with our community.


  5. In our firm, we work with a lot of consultants and self-employed people and that includes staff. There is a trend for companies to want the flexibility of using self-employed people, sop don’t be put off by the figures, and in some sectors, like technology, the self-employed space is still great if you find the right niche. It’s just a patchy area. Few of us now have genuine job security any more anyway, so useful data but don’t let it put you off going for it yourself !

  6. I think it depends on the economic health of the area as well as the business.

    We started our business in 2009 and it has been steadily growing based on two things. We chose one of the relatively more economically stable areas and provide kind of service that draws increasing word of mouth business.

  7. I was (am) self employed from 1986 to present. Although retired now (75+), I still do occasional jobs for old customers. My business was a one man service business servicing and repairing steel doors and frames in commercial buildings. My business cycled opposite to most in that, in slow times my business picked up and in good times it slowed. In good times folks remodeled and replaced old with new and in bad times they repaired and made do with what they had.

    I could have expanded by doing installation work in new buildings (there was a demand) but I found the expense of hiring and training employees (workman’s Comp, SS, etc) to be a big barrier. I did hire a part time employee for a short time and found that I was paying more in WC and SS than I was paying the employee. I opted to keep it very small… Being a one man business, I spent a lot of time doing paperwork. That was a nightmare until computers made it somewhat easier. Still, I was paid only for the work I did…not for the menial tasks that go with it.

    If I had it to do over, I’d do it again. Life was so much easier when I was in-charge of my time and I was rewarded based on my efforts. Being self employed opens up a world of opportunities and the end result is just what you put into it.

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