Better Off?

April 9, 2008

Posted by Jay Livingston

American middle-class optimism seems to have taken a hit lately. For several years, leftish economists have shown that even though something called “the economy” may be doing better, most people – all but those at the top – are running hard just to stay in place. The data are now reflected in subjective feelings.

The Pew Center just issued a report on the middle class, and it begins with Gallup Poll data on Ronald Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” (OK, Gallup uses five years, not four, but who’s counting?)

Are You Better Off

When Reagan asked this question in the 1980 presidential debates, most people, according to Gallup felt that yes, they were better off – 52% vs. 25% who felt they were worse off. That’s puzzling, considering the apparent success of Reagan’s question – he won the election handily.

The interesting result from the Gallup numbers is that when Reagan left office – after the “Reagan recovery” cherished by anti-tax, anti-regulation conservatives – the numbers were identical. If you look at actual changes in median family income, you see a slight decline in the Carter years and an increase in the Reagan years. But these changes aren’t reflected in how people felt, at least not as measured by Gallup.

This year’s numbers show optimism at its lowest ebb since Gallup started asking the question in 1964. “Better off” still tops “worse off,” but by only 41% to 31%. Even more surprising to me was the proportion of these self-identified middle-class Americans who rate their quality of life as low (five or less on a ten-point scale). That contrasts with the results on job satisfaction – 89% of these middle-class people say they are “completely” or “mostly” satisfied with their jobs.

How do you rate your present quality of life?

Graph: How the Middle Class Sees Their Lives

The report is full of other interesting data, and it’s worth a look.

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