Bump in U.S. Incomes Doesn’t Erase 50 Years of Pain

Incomes are up. Poverty is down. And job openings have hit a record high. But if the economy is so wonderful, why are so many Americans still feeling left behind?

The disconnect between positive statistics and people’s day-to-day lives is one of the great economic and social puzzles of recent years. It helped fuel President Trump’s political rise and underpins the frustrations that played out in calls to build a Mexican border wall, reopen trade agreements, and bring back well-paid work in coal mines and factories.

When the Census Bureau released its annual report on the country’s economic well-being on Tuesday, it showed unmistakable progress: For the second year in a row, household incomes — clobbered by the 2007 recession — had grown. More Americans were working, and more had health insurance, in 2016 than the year before.

The findings suggest that the “American dream” — in which each generation is richer and better positioned than the previous one — is back on track.

For many Americans, though, the recent progress is still dwarfed by profound changes that have been building for nearly a half-century: rising inequality and rusted-stuck incomes.

“Over the past five decades, Middle America has been stagnant in terms of its economic growth,” said Mark Rank, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1973, the inflation-adjusted median income of men working full time was $54,030. In 2016, it was $51,640 — roughly $2,400 lower. A big chunk of that group — white working-class men — formed a critical core of support for Mr. Trump, who spoke to their economic anxieties and promised changes in trade, immigration and tax policies as a solution.

As in an Agatha Christie mystery, the potential culprits behind the long-term trends are many — global competition, technological advances, trade imbalances, a mismatch of skills, the tax system, housing prices, factory shutdowns, excessive regulation, Wall Street pressure, the erosion of labor unions and more. Most of the suspects, if not all, are likely to have played some role.

– New York Times

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