Whatever happened to sharing the pie of prosperity?
More Americans now see the US as a place of haves and have-nots. That wasn't supposed to happen.
Last week, a friend in his 30s prodded me to explain how my generation, the boomers, had botched so many things. While not exactly conceding that we had, I said that the one thing none of us had anticipated was that America would cease to be a land of broadly shared prosperity. To be born, as I was, in mid-century, was to have come of age in a nation in which the level of prosperity continued to rise and the circle of prosperity continued to widen. This was the great given of our youth. If the boomers embraced such causes as civil and social rights and environmentalism, it was partly because the existence and distribution of prosperity seemed to be settled questions.
Nor were we alone in making this mistake. Our parents may have gone through the Depression and could never fully believe, as boomers did, that the good times were here to stay. They remembered busts as well as booms. But the idea that the economy could revert to its pre-New Deal configuration (in which the rich claimed all the wealth the nation created while everyone else just got by): Who, among all our generations and political persuasions, expected that?
Yet that's precisely what happened. Median family income over the past quarter-century has stagnated. The economic rewards from increased productivity, which went to working-class as well as wealthy Americans from the 1940s to the '70s, now go exclusively to the rich. The manufacturing jobs that anchored our prosperity were offshored, automated, or deunionized; lower-paying service-sector jobs took their place.
It's no great achievement for a people to recognize that their nation's economy has tanked, but recognizing that their nation's class structure has slowly but fundamentally altered is more challenging. It's harder still for a people who are conditioned, as Americans are, not to see their nation in terms of class.
Which is why a poll released this month by the Pew Research Center reveals a transformation of Americans' sense of their country and themselves that is startling. Pew asked Americans if their country was divided between haves and have-nots. In 1988, when Gallup asked that question, 26 percent of respondents said yes and 71 percent said no. In 2001, when Pew asked, 44 percent said yes and 53 percent said no. But when Pew asked it again this summer, the number of Americans who agreed had risen to 48 percent – exactly the same as the number of Americans who disagreed.