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Actor's Income Falls Far Below U.S. Average

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Actors' Equity Association reported in December that its members' earnings hit an all-time high in 1998. Reports from last spring revealed that Screen Actors Guild (SAG) members who worked on films and TV shows had experienced dramatic earnings increases from 1993 to 1997.

But just where do the specific income figures place the American actor when compared to the average income of the U.S. citizenry?

According to Equity, total membership earnings for the '97-'98 season rose nearly 10% from the previous season, and up 88% from a decade ago. As far as specific income, Equity members in '97-'98 earned an average of $14,936: a rise of nearly $1,000 over last season.

SAG, rather than going with averages, reported last June its members' earning categories. Only 12% of SAG members earned more than $20,000 under SAG contracts in 1997. One-quarter of the guild earned between $1 and $1,000, and 30% of the membership had no earnings under SAG pacts. Just over 73% of SAG members had earnings of less than $5,001.

The Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis‹as of November 1998‹has listed U.S. per capita income at just over $22,500. That would place the average Equity actor's income about $7,500 below the U.S. average.

The $22,500 average citizen's income figure reflects even more poorly on SAG actors. At least 88% of them fall below that level.

The Fed, this past September, reported 1997 median household income at $37,300. That means if two Equity actors were married, their combined average income of $29,800 would come up about $7,500 short of the country's median household. If two SAG actors, both in the 12% that earned $20,000, got hitched, they'd rank above the U.S. median household. But obviously, most of SAG's married members would not.

The poverty threshold for a family of four was $16,400 in annual income in 1997; it was $12,802 for a family of three. While that would easily put the average Equity couple above the poverty line, it doesn't bode well for the nearly three quarters of SAG members who earned $5,001 or less. If two of them are married and with child, they'd fall under the $12,802 mark.

The earnings statistics could be considered even more staggering since most Equity and SAG members tend to live in the New York and Los Angeles metro areas, where the cost of living tends to be higher than the rest of the nation.

Equity's December report didn't separate men's income from women's, but SAG's June study did, as far as total dollars earned and percentages. Female SAG members earned $472.7 million under all SAG contracts, about half of what men earned.

There was no calculation of females or other minorities' specific income in the SAG report. But SAG did issue a report in December clarifying how minorities and women are still underrepresented on TV.

While the study involved no specific income figures, it did examine 6,882 characters who appeared in 440 prime-time episodes of dramatic programs during 1994-97, and analyzed 2,137 characters in 205 episodes on daytime TV during the same period. The report showed slight progress toward equitable representation, but men still outnumber women, with Latino/Hispanics as the most underrepresented.

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