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The American Dream Is Not Dead

Populists on the right and the left have agreed that the economy is killing the middle class, but the data say otherwise.
August 20, 2020
Featured Image
March 1937: A billboard, sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, on Highway 99 in California during the Depression. It reads 'There's no way like the American way' and 'world's highest standard of living'. (Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

The Biden campaign deserves praise for introducing, at the Democratic National Convention, something we haven’t seen a lot of lately—smiles. They’ve showcased grins and joyful, dancing eyes on the faces of all sorts of Americans. Sure, it’s corny. Yes, it’s a little manipulative. I don’t care. I almost want to shout, “That! I’ll vote for that.” Enough of snarls, insults, denigration, and lies. Please just lift this pall of poisonous hatred. That’s 80 percent of what I want.

Of course, we didn’t arrive at this moment of bitter polarization overnight, and we won’t be able to transcend it with one election. But the Biden team seems to be betting that many of us are yearning for a giant step toward decency.

As much as I long for national reconciliation and the pacification of our politics, I’m worried about something else—the flip side of polarization. As shrill and vicious as the discourse has become in recent years, there has also been a curious consensus emerging. And this new consensus is neither accurate nor healthy.

On both the left and the right, you find striking agreement that the past several decades have been a time of economic decline. Our economy, they say, is broken. “The American Dream,” says Tucker Carlson of Fox News, “is dead.” We’ve been told by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the left, and by Donald Trump and Sen. Josh Hawley on the right, that the middle class is being “hollowed out,” that the wealth gains of recent years have gone entirely to the top one percent of earners, that real wages for the middle class have stagnated, and that the “game is rigged.”

Warren blames Washington, D.C., for the “plight” of the middle class. Sanders rails against millionaires and billionaires, constantly asserting that all of the gains of the past several decades have accrued only to them, leaving everyone else behind. Hawley often sounds as if he’s cribbing from both of them. “Elites,” he charged, have conspired with “multinational corporations” to “hollow out the middle class.” Using a phrase redolent of communist propagandists during the Cold War, Hawley thundered that it was “no coincidence” that we were experiencing “the breakdown of community” and the “rise of oligarchy.” It was a plan by “internationalists” who have “embroiled America in one foreign war after another… sent American production overseas, compromised American supply chains, and cost American jobs, all while enriching Communist China.” Sen. Marco Rubio has been sounding similar notes, suggesting that capitalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “What the markets determine,” he said, “may not be best for America.”

Is the middle class in trouble? Only if you think it’s bad news that since 1967, more Americans have joined the upper middle class. In a study published by the Brookings Institution, Stephen Rose found that the number of Americans in the upper middle class (defined here as a family of three with a yearly income between $108,500 and $380,500 in constant 2018 dollars) increased from 6 percent in 1967 to 33 percent in 2016. Among African-Americans, the share jumped from 1 percent to 14 percent over the same period.

Michael Strain’s new book, The American Dream is Not Dead (But Populism Could Kill It) is chock full of myth-busting statistics. Has the American middle class seen its wages stagnate for 30 years? No. Since 1990, the wages of typical workers (not managers or supervisors) have increased by 33 percent. Maybe that’s not enough, but it’s not stagnation. And wages are only one form of compensation. As Strain notes, if you include taxes and government transfers to inflation-adjusted income, the median household saw its income increase by 44 percent since 1990.

What about rising inequality? Income numbers alone don’t give the whole picture. Strain shows, again, that when you add taxes and transfers to income data, you find that inequality has actually decreased by 7 percent between 2007 and 2016.

Besides, there are some things that cannot be captured by statistics. How do you measure the improvement in quality of life that drugs like Prilosec have delivered? People used to undergo surgery and be sidelined for months with stomach ulcers. Now, most can be treated with a 14-day dose available over the counter. Single and working mothers today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers were able to in 1965. And more than 90 percent of homes have air conditioning today compared with 60 percent in 1980.

There’s another fabulous resource for information on these matters: It’s PolicyEd.org. There you can find a series of easy-to-follow videos by economist Russ Roberts. He addresses the tricks numbers can play. Over time, the share of households containing adults over 65 has steadily risen. Naturally, if you compare a sample of middle-class households from 1980 with a sample from 2016 and fail to account for the larger number of retirees, it’s going to look like the middle class is losing ground. Even more critical is the fact that marriage and family patterns have changed dramatically over the past several decades. There are many more single adult households than in times past. So “household income” can appear lower, when the income of individuals has actually increased. And echoing the point that Strain made, Roberts notes the problem of taking snapshots of “quintiles” in time rather than following actual individuals over the course of their careers. When you examine actual individuals, you find that the poor and the middle class have seen respectable gains over the past several decades.

There’s lots more where that came from. The children of people in the bottom quintile turn out to make twice as much, on average, as their parents, while those born to parents in the highest quintile wound up with the same income as their parents. Upward mobility is real.

The populists of right and left have agreed on something that just isn’t so. The death of the American Dream has been vastly exaggerated. And to the extent that they’ve persuaded large numbers of Americans that our problems are those of foreigners taking our jobs or greedy one percenters hoarding all the gains for themselves, we are diverted from addressing our true challenges. Male labor force participation has been dropping for many years. The nature of middle class jobs is changing, from industrial to service sector, posing retraining challenges for some. The way we price health care is opaque and frankly, borderline insane. Business startups have been in decline. Child poverty is rising, in part due to the rise of single-parent families. Our schools are inadequate, deaths of despair are on the rise, racial discrimination remains a problem, and our national debt is out of control.

And all of that antedates the spiraling health, governance, cultural, and racial challenges we must confront. We have enough on our national plate without talking ourselves into a false belief in a broken economy that benefits only the rich.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected]