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Unemployment has sunk, but paychecks still aren't growing

Michael Hall has worked at Seattle's Space Needle for seven years, taking visitors up and down the attraction's elevator.

The 30-year-old received regular raises the first few years he worked there, thanks to a union contract, he told NPR. But then the contract expired, and now, even though business is booming at the Space Needle, four years have gone by with no raise for Hall.

When he first started working he could sock away money into savings, and he could afford to go out once in a while and get a beer. "But after two or three years, suddenly it was like there's seven of us in a house. And then finally I started to find myself, about a year ago, living paycheck to paycheck."

Even though the economy is technically in recovery, wages have lagged for a lot of workers like Hall.

"Wage growth is stagnant, and too few Americans are working," said James Pethokoukis of American Enterprise Institute.

Minimum wage growth is the top reason why millennials quit their jobs, according to an Ernst & Young survey. Seventy-eight percent of millennials said stagnant wages was a reason to quit, and 72 percent cited excessive overtime, which perhaps points to the problem of increasing worker productivity, but workers don't necessarily see the benefits.

SEE MORE:How much the minimum wage was really worth in 2014

"We have created lots of income, lots of output, lots of wealth over the last three decades," Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, told NPR. "The problem is it has not accrued to the vast majority."

Mishel and others argue that policymakers need to focus more on shaping the rules of the economic game so average workers can command higher pretax wages. He argues that the problem isn't what the federal government is taking out in taxes, however, but rather that employers are paying too little.

The top 10 percent of income earners now take home almost half of all income, according to University of Berkeley research released earlier this year.

Stagnant wages don't only impact low-wage workers; middle class wages have also seen stagnating hourly wages, and even workers with college degrees have seen no pay growth for the last decade, according to EPI.

Experts say that anemic pay growth affects everyone — when middle-class workers don't have money to spend, the whole economy suffers.

"The default Republican position would be you need to reduce taxes, you need to reduce spending so more of America's economic resources are being run by the private sector," Pethokoukis told NPR. "And that would boost economic growth."

Other proposals are education reform and increased investment in public works to boost productivity.

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Email: laneanderson@deseretnews.com