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Food pantries picked over. Incomes drying up. Shelters bursting with the homeless. Job seekers spilling out the doors of employment centers. College grads moving back in with their parents. The angry and disillusioned filling the streets.
Pan your camera from one coast to the other, from city to suburb to farm and back again, and you’ll witness scenes like these. They are the legacy of the Great Recession, the Lesser Depression, or whatever you choose to call it.
In recent months, a blizzard of new data, the hardest of hard numbers, has laid bare the dilapidated condition of the American economy, and particularly of the once-mighty American middle class. Each report sparks a flurry of news stories and pundit chatter, but never much reflection on what it all means now that we have just enough distance to look back on the first decade of the twenty-first century and see how Americans fared in that turbulent period.
And yet the verdict couldn’t be more clear-cut. For the American middle class, long the pride of this country and the envy of the world, the past 10 years were a bust. A washout. A decade from hell.
Paychecks shrank. Household wealth melted away like so many sandcastles swept off by the incoming tide. Poverty spiked, swallowing an ever-greater share of the population, young and old. "This is truly a lost decade," Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz said of these last years. "We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s."
Poverty Swallows America
Not even a full year has passed and yet the signs of wreckage couldn’t be clearer. It’s as if Hurricane Irene had swept through the American economy. Consider this statistic: between 1999 and 2009, the net jobs gain in the American workforce was zero. In the six previous decades, the number of jobs added rose by at least 20% per decade.
Then there’s income. In 2010, the average middle-class family took home $49,445, a drop of $3,719 or 7%, in yearly earnings from 10 years earlier. In other words, that family now earns the same amount as in 1996. After peaking in 1999, middle-class income dwindled through the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, climbing briefly during the housing boom, then nosediving in its aftermath.
In this lost decade, according to economist Jared Bernstein, poor families watched their income shrivel by 12%, falling from $13,538 to $11,904. Even families in the 90th percentile of earners suffered a 1% percent hit, dropping on average from $141,032 to $138,923. Only among the staggeringly wealthy was this not a lost decade: the top 1% of earners enjoyed 65% of all income growth in America for much of the decade, one hell of a run, only briefly interrupted by the financial meltdown of 2008 and now, by the look of things, back on track.