The roots of two American populist revolts.
by Don Baylor
Like most presidential election cycles, the 2016 national election is proving to be a stark reflection of the electorate itself. For both parties, we are witnessing a so-called “populist revolt” that is shaking up the race. Various theories emerge, including the cult of personality or fatigue with ”the establishment”. One compelling rationale, however, is barely mentioned by political pundits and observers: declining economic security, including belief in the American Dream. Certainly, economic inequality has dominated much of the discussion, as studies have shown that recent income gains have largely flowed to wealthiest households. However, we know that income levels and distribution are only part of the story that explains perceived economic insecurity and anxiety.
We keep hearing about the decline of the American middle class. A recent CNN/Kaiser Foundation poll found that less than half of all respondents said it was easier for them to achieve the American Dream than it was for their parents. Not surprisingly, this “perception as reality” differs substantially along racial lines.
Given the U.S. history of white privilege and institutional bias against communities and households of color, the results turn conventional wisdom on its head. In fact, over half of African Americans and Latinos note that it’s easier for them to achieve the American Dream than their parents while only about a third of Whites felt they had a better chance of economic success than their parents.
Young Americans also feel decidedly negative about their future economic prospects, with about half of millennials (age 18–29) declaring the American Dream to be “dead”, according to a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll. This same poll found an even more morbid sense about their financial futures among Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters.
Why is this feeling of economic insecurity so widespread when so many of our usual indicators show economic progress? When you examine typical big picture indicators such as poverty, unemployment, inflation, or even home foreclosures, the picture looks fairly sanguine, especially when you compare those indicators to their elevated levels of 2009–2010, when the U.S. economy was at its weakest point in nearly 70 years.
Part of this disconnect has to do with our lack of a common and uniform measurement for identifying individual or household economic security. As shown by the more anecdotal measures of middle class fragility or economic insecurity, the federal poverty rate — about 15 percent of Americans are poor — is altogether inadequate to gauge the broader sense that many families are barely making ends meet and falling behind financially. By comparison, close to half of American households are financially unhealthy, according to alternative measurements of economic security
Typically, we can detect such critical issues with significant policy implications through well-developed measures or indicators. For example, the high share of Americans without health insurance created a policy platform for health care reform that gave rise to the Affordable Care Act. Five years after its passage, we can evaluate the impact through the substantial decline in the uninsured rate.
Since the federal poverty rate is no longer capable of detecting broader economic insecurity, several groups have developed national models to identify economic insecurity, even in particular cities and regions. Many of these tools do an excellent job identifying the income necessary to make ends meet and maintain a decent quality of life, yet we don’t have a universal way of measuring economic well-being and how it changes over time.
No officially sanctioned national indicator exists that accurately or adequately measures what comprises economic wellbeing. Part of the problem of universal measurement has to do with geography and cost of affording basic needs such as housing and child care. The income needed to be economically secure varies significantly from Manhattan, New York to Manhattan, Kansas.
This is why the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, along with grassroots and policy advocates, has launched the “Economic Security Is . . .” campaign to make sense of collected data in relation to economic security. This campaign gives voice to all who feel economic anxiety about their lives and the generations ahead, and information about what it means to be economically secure.
Because we know that poverty and unemployment rates don’t capture the levels of economic insecurity throughout the country, we urge the presidential candidates to put forth proposals to not only improve economic well-being, but also to adopt a solid mechanism for measuring economic security so that we can track change over time and evaluate policy platforms through this lens of economic well-being. As we know, what gets measured gets done.
Don Baylor is the Director of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s Metrics Matter initiative.