Only serious nerds like me eagerly await the annual Census Bureau reports on income, poverty and health insurance. But the reports released last week on 2015 justified the anticipation.
We expected good news; but last year, it turns out, the economy partied like it was 1999. And this tells us something very important — namely, that a government that wants to can make American society more equitable, improving the quality of life for ordinary families.
The reports showed strong progress on three fronts: rapid growth in the incomes of ordinary families — median income rose a remarkable 5.2 percent — a substantial decline in the poverty rate and a significant further rise in health insurance coverage after 2014’s gains. It was a trifecta that we haven’t hit since, yes, 1999.
It’s true that the surge in median income comes after years of disappointment, and even now the typical family’s income, adjusted for inflation, is slightly lower than it was before the financial crisis. But the percentage of Americans without health insurance is now at a record low. And the overall performance of the Obama economy has given the lie to much of the criticism leveled at President Barack Obama’s policies.
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Think back to the 2012 election campaign. There were already signs of the conspiracy-theory, bigotry-driven politics of this year’s election; Donald Trump was loudly proclaiming that Obama’s birth certificate was fake, and Mitt Romney eagerly accepted Trump’s endorsement.
But there was also something of a policy debate. Republicans accused Obama of being a “redistributionist,” taking money away from “job creators” to give free stuff to the 47 percent. And they claimed that these socialistic policies were destroying incentives and blocking economic recovery.
There was, in fact, a grain of truth in the first part of this accusation. Obama is no socialist, but since his re-election he has presided over a significant rise in taxes on high incomes. In fact, the top 1 percent is now paying about the same share of its income in federal taxes as it did in 1979, before Ronald Reagan began the era of big tax cuts for the rich. And some of the increased tax take is being used to subsidize health insurance for middle- and lower-income families.
Conservatives predicted disaster from these initiatives. Tax hikes on the rich, they insisted, would stall the economy. Obamacare’s combination of regulation and subsidies, they declared, would kill millions of jobs without increasing the number of Americans with insurance.
What happened instead after Obama was re-elected was the best job growth since the 1990s. But family incomes, at least as estimated by the Census, continued to lag. So there was still some statistical basis for the right’s Obama-bashing. Now that statistical basis is gone.
You might ask whether these numbers reflect reality. It’s often claimed that Americans aren’t feeling any economic recovery — and if anyone were to ask Trump, he would no doubt claim that the Census numbers, like every number he doesn’t like, are cooked.
But be wary of polling on this issue. When Americans are asked how the economy is doing, many of them just repeat what they think they heard on Fox News: By large margins, Republicans say that unemployment is up and the stock market is down under Obama, the opposite of the truth. On the other hand, when you ask people how well they personally are doing, the Obama years have been marked by large improvements — a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who see themselves as thriving.
So the good news is real. And it should (but won’t) finally break the grip of trickle-down ideology on much of our political class.
You know how the argument goes: Any attempt to help working families directly, we’re told, will backfire by hurting the economy as a whole. So we must cut taxes on those “job creators” instead, counting on a rising tide to raise all boats.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the Obama administration has done the reverse, but there definitely was an element of trickle-up economics in its response to the Great Recession: Much of the stimulus involved expanding the social safety net, not just to protect the vulnerable, but to increase purchasing power and sustain demand. And in general Obama-era policies have tried to help families directly, rather than by showering benefits on the rich and hoping that the benefits trickle down.
Now the results of this policy experiment are in, and they’re not bad. They could have been better: The stimulus should have been bigger and more sustained, and Republican opposition hamstrung the administration’s economic policy after the first two years. Still, progressive policies have worked, and the critics of those policies have been proved wrong.