Tag Archives: The American Dream

The death of a dream?

We are seeing the end of middle class America.

The slow economic strangulation of the Freemans and millions of other middle-class Americans started long before the Great Recession, which merely exacerbated the “personal recession” that ordinary Americans had been suffering for years. Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is above 300.

The trend has only been getting stronger. Most economists see the Great Stagnation as a structural problem – meaning it is immune to the business cycle. In the last expansion, which started in January 2002 and ended in December 2007, the median US household income dropped by $2,000 – the first ever instance where most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the start. Worse is that the long era of stagnating incomes has been accompanied by something profoundly un-American: declining income mobility.

Here’s another way to look at the problem

Statistics only capture one slice of the problem. But it is the renowned Harvard economist, Larry Katz, who offers the most compelling analogy. “Think of the American economy as a large apartment block,” says the softly spoken professor. “A century ago – even 30 years ago – it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most.”

It’s not going to change anytime soon

Every now and then the Freemans invite their neighbours round to their front porch, to watch the world go by, drink beer and eat Connie’s justly renowned dish of ­Minnesota wild rice. In the best American spirit, Mark and Connie are active neighbourhood people. They are the types who shovel your snow, volunteer for school events, and coach the baseball little league – Mark has done all three.

It takes optimism to be like this. But in the past few years the Freemans have been running low on it. “I guess the penny dropped in the last 18 months when we finally realised that it’s always going to be like this – we are never going to be able to retire on our savings,” says Connie. “As for Andy,” she says, referring to her painfully shy but acutely observant son, “the future really frightens me. If you’re young, it’s bad enough nowadays. But for a kid with autism?”

The entire article is a good one, talks about how the high cost of education, rising rents and a host of other factors that have contributed to the death of the American dream.

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