For those who study the divergence between myth and reality in American life, these are good times indeed. Rarely, and certainly not in the lifetime of anyone alive today, have we been presented with such a bountiful opportunity to reflect on the yawning fissure between what is and what we boast. Not even Ronald Reagan, that gifted mythologist, could have conjured such a wide disjunction between the America so many people crow about and the America we live in.
I was thinking about this as I read the President’s State of the Union Speech, which bragged about the “blue-collar boom” and the end of American decline, for which he naturally takes complete responsibility. So let us grant him that responsibility, and all that comes with it. While we’re at it, let’s revisit some of the myths we claim, and compare them to the world he has created.
America is the land of opportunity.
We know this one. It’s the rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger story. In America, you can grow up to be anything you want. All it takes is hard work and a little pluck. The President, who was born on third base and thinks he invented baseball, wouldn’t know anything about this myth, but it’s part and parcel of his familiar claim that social welfare programs are a waste of money. Anybody can get rich, if they have the gumption. That’s why, for instance, the Trump administration recently slashed the food stamp program. “Millions and millions of people don’t need food stamps anymore,” President Trump said when he was hobnobbing with the rich and richer at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “They have jobs. They’re doing really well.”
It’s just a lie. It may have been true once—that’s hard to know—but it certainly isn’t true in this President’s country. We measure social mobility by calculating the odds that a child born in the least wealthy quintile of American households can rise to the top quintile. Of course, the likelihood is low everywhere, but it is laughingly improbable in the United States. At least, it’s laughable compared to the persistence of the myth. A child has a greater chance of making the jump in, among other places, Italy, France, Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In Canada, her odds are nearly twice as good as they are here.
Maybe you think the measurement is unfair, and that we should set our sights lower. Maybe the test should be whether a poor child in the United States can dream big and grow up to be … modestly less poor. Maybe all we should measure is the risk that a child born into the lowest quintile stays there. Again, the United States does far worse than the countries to which it claims moral or political kinship, including the UK, Italy, Sweden, France, and others. In the so-called land of opportunity, the odds are pretty good that a child born poor will stay that way her entire life.
America is the land of milk and honey.
America has a lot of myths about how easy life is. Even if you don’t want to get rich, it takes nothing at all to live a long, decent life, buy a home in a nice neighborhood, and enjoy a secure, comfortable retirement. We’re a middle-class country, almost everybody is in more or less the same boat, and all the boats are rising. There’s really no poverty to speak of, and if there is, it’s just a few people who don’t want to take the modest steps necessary to get themselves off the bottom. This is where the President’s boast about a blue-collar boom fits in. During his State of the Union Speech, he said that during his presidency, the wealth of the poorest half of U.S. households has increased three times as fast as the wealth of the top 1%.
It’s amazing what a creative speechwriter can do with statistics.
If you have a dollar and I have ten thousand, and someone gives both of us another dollar, your wealth has increased by 100%, but you still can’t buy a gallon of gas. My wealth, meanwhile, has barely budged, but I can buy both a gallon of gas and a car to put it in. If you have a dollar and I have a hundred, and someone gives you a dollar and me nine, your wealth has increased by 100% and mine by less than 10%. What a success story! What a great country! Your wealth has grown more than ten times as fast as mine! But of course, I have captured 90% of the new wealth. More importantly, you’re still damn near broke and I still have a wealth that dwarfs yours, even though your wealth has doubled.
Against that little math lesson, let’s revisit the President’s blue-collar boom. His baseline claim about the rate of growth in the wealth is true. But Reuters took a closer look at the numbers, which come from the Federal Reserve, and found that while the bottom half of all households enjoyed an increase in net worth of 54% since the President was elected, that gives the entire group—half the population—a net worth of about $1.67 trillion. During the same period, the wealth of the top 1% grew by 18%, which means those few now control about $34.5 trillion. In case you’re wondering, this comes to an average new worth of about $26,000 for a household in the bottom half of the population, compared to about $27 million for a household in the top 1%, difference of more than 1000:1. And that’s after the so-called blue-collar boom.
Even this grossly understates the extent of inequality in the United States. Much of the added wealth for the poorest half of all Americans during the last four years comes not from wages or savings, but from increases in the value of real estate. But you can’t eat your house. In fact, increases in the cost of housing and rent have exacerbated the housing crisis that now ripples across the country. Rents are increasing much faster than general inflation, and though wages have ticked up modestly, the rate of increase still lags well behind increases in the cost of shelter.
Given that much of the added wealth the President brags about is tied to increases in the value of one’s home, we should ask who among us is most likely to own rather than rent? CityLab has crunched the numbers. As a general matter, the poor rent rather than own. So do the young. So do Blacks and Latinos. So do households headed by someone with a high school degree or less. If you are old, rich, educated, and White, you’re much more likely to own than rent. And that’s who has captured the added wealth under the President. Eighty-four percent of the added wealth went to households that identified as White, while less than 5% went to Blacks and less than 4% to Latinos. Baby-boomers captured two-thirds of the added wealth and the pre-baby boom took in another 16%, leaving millennials and Gen-Xers to divide the rest. And households headed by someone with only a high school degree—a quarter of all American households—actually lost wealth during the President’s term.
Let’s call it what it is. This is not a blue-collar boom. This is another gut punch to the poor.
I’ve only scratched the surface. The story on inequality and social immobility is even worse than I’ve described, and I haven’t even touched some of our other cherished myths. How about this one: America is an immigrant country. Gives us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Really? Has anyone been to the border lately? Or this one: America is the land of the free. You can be whoever you want. There are people who keep track of hate crimes in this country, and their totals tell a very different story. Hate crime violence reached a 16-year high in 2018, including a major upswing in violence against Latinos, the President’s demon du jour.
I am not opposed to national myths. If they mark the distance between what is and what ought to be, they can shame the country into action. But if we pretend the myth is true without regard to reality, if we close our eyes to the facts and settle instead for blind worship of the myth, then we deserve the decline that will surely follow. Yet none of that matters to the man in the White House, which means that for those of us who study this distance, he is the perfect President.