While swinging from one crisis to the next for the last several years, we have often lost sight of some long-term trends that we can’t ignore forever. For the last several decades, the United States has been growing apart, not together. The middle class has been contracting, rising out of poverty remains difficult, and parents doubt whether they can provide a better life for their children than they had. The American Dream, an organizing article of faith that helped to build the most diverse and wealthy nation in human history, is in trouble.
Over the last 35 years, median wages have hardly moved while people at the top of the income distribution have enjoyed significant income growth. As can be seen in the chart above, after adjusting for inflation the top 20% of wage earners have seen their income grow by more than $5 per hour since 1980, while folks at the median have seen less than half of that growth. This means that less and less of the prosperity generated by the North Carolina economy is going to the middle class. It has been a slow process, and one with many causes, but the trend is clear, increasingly present, and dangerous. If the middle class slowly disappears, the American Dream will go with it.
The long-term trends do not just spell trouble for the middle class. As can be seen below, the last decade has seen an explosion in the number of North Carolina counties that are home to high levels of inequality and poverty. The share of counties with this troubling paring of high-inequality and high-poverty has doubled since 2000, going from roughly 30% to over 60%. This means that in more than half of the counties in our state, income growth is doing little to lift people out of poverty. Again, the sort of trend that saps energy out of the American Dream.
The potency of the American Dream relies on hard work being rewarded, talent being recognized, and people sharing in the wealth they create. If poor and working North Carolinians’ piece of the pie created keeps getting smaller, we will lose the source of our greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy, the American dream.
Looking back a year end and ahead into the future, the Budget and Tax Center compiled a 2014 Chartbook, which looks at a range of critical economic issues facing North Carolina. The bottom line is that we still have a long way to go and the growth that we are seeing is not exceptional but rather in line with the improving national picture. The recovery has been built on low-wage jobs resulting in the persistence of elevated poverty levels despite improvements overall. State policy choices, namely the decision to cut taxes for the wealthy few and profitable corporations, have made it impossible to strengthen the infrastructure of opportunity in the state. The result is that the recovery is bypassing many North Carolinians and communities and contributing to the growing divide in experience of opportunity and prosperity.