The State of the American Dream: Safer, Smarter, Poorer

 

June 25, 2014; Washington Post

Measure of America, a seven-year-old non-partisan project of the Social Science Research Council, and Opportunity Nation, which describes itself as a “bipartisan, national campaign…working…to expand economic mobility,” have worked together on a recent report detailing “the broad and abstract promises of life in America.” The results combined present an image of a nation that has improved markedly when it comes to crime and schooling but slid backward when it comes to personal earning potential.

Opportunity Since 1970: A Historical Report uses “uses data from 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010, enabling comparisons of ten key indicators: unemployment rate; median household income; poverty rate; income inequality; preschool enrollment; on-time high school graduation; post-secondary completion; disconnected youth rate; violent crime rate; and access to medical doctors.” Rather than relying strictly on Gross Domestic Product to measure the economic health of the nation, it uses a Human Development Index like that of the United Nations Development Program to provide a broader, more accurate view.

The report concludes that in the past four decades, access to opportunity has more than tripled; although it varies from state to state, the average American has made gains when it comes to life expectancy and access to education and healthcare. (Only Michigan has shown a noticeable decrease in opportunity, with Nevada coming close behind.) However, what stands in stark contrast is the fact that, according to the report, “access to economic opportunity has actually contracted since 1970. […] The typical American in 2010 was earning $2,200 less than a decade earlier.” Although it’s tempting to blame this decline on the Great Recession, the report asserts “earnings declined during the first half of the 2000s, well before the recession hit. Just 11 states saw earnings increase, while 17 states saw stagnation.”

Opportunity Since 1970 is available for download here, with a brief summary of findings here for those who’d like a more cursory overview.—Jason Schneiderman