What Would It Take for America to Be Great Again, Really?

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A friend posed a question recently that’s particularly relevant to our current national conversation:

When, exactly, was America great?

The question is on everyone’s mind, thanks to Donald Trump‘s surprise ascendancy to star in the world’s biggest reality TV show, our presidential election. His central theme, or at least the theme of his campaign hats, is a promise that a Trump administration would “Make America Great Again.” That promise does lead to a logical question. When was that? What would it be like?

“I do wish those who want to make America great again would pinpoint the exact era we were perfectly great. Give me a decade, even,” my friend said.

There is an answer, I told him. Back when families with a decent income could afford food and shelter. In the 1950s. More in a moment.

First, let’s try to suspend our love or hatred for politics and particular politicians for a moment. Let’s also suspend the implied message of my friend’s question: That old farts with bad memories and nostalgia-poisoned hearts are yearning for a past that never really existed. That’s always true. Let’s take the question at its face. Because it hints at what I’ve been writing about in The Restless Project for the past couple of years. And I think it also helps explain both the Trump and Bernie Sanders phenomenons.

When I was in grade school, I remember a social studies textbook with a chapter titled: “The American Century: 1950-1963.” My teacher was annoyed that none of us got the joke. I remember my embarrassment at missing the point. What was supposed to be the American “Century,” she pointed out, lasted only about a decade. Why? The afterglow of winning World War II could only outshine America’s deep social flaws for so long. No one in their right mind would trade our time for that time. President Barack Obama has been making this point repeatedly at graduation speeches and in interviews for the past year or so, and he’s right when he says, “Even with today’s challenges, this is the best time in history to be alive.”

What was so good about the 1950s?

Still, when folks yearn for something in the past, they vaguely mean the 1950s. And in one way, they are quite right.

Since the 1950s, the relationship between income and living expenses in America has broken down disastrously. Back then, workers earning minimum wage could earn enough in about 10 days (56 hours) to pay a month’s rent — roughly one-third of income. Don’t try that now.

Moving up the income chain: In 1950, the average family income was $3,300, and the median home price was $7,354. In 2014, family income was $51,017 and median home price was $188,900. (Source) The ratios are completely out of whack now. Homes cost nearly four years of family income, versus less than three in the 1950s. And recall that many households now include two incomes, not one.

People are working harder — or at least, double the time spent on labor — for less. Most critically, as I’ve chronicled repeatedly, people with average incomes can’t afford average homes. That’s why so many people feel like they are running around on a rat wheel.

There are hundreds of caveats to these data points. You could easily convince me that two office jobs today are nowhere near as tough as one factory job in the 1950s. People’s homes are bigger, and full of far more amenities, than 1950s homes. We also have cheaper clothing and televisions, and all manner of creature comforts.

The American Dream is threatened

Still, there’s a deeper issue at play. The social contract, the American Dream that those who work hard can earn themselves a decent living in America, has broken down. Sure, you can afford a large television and Netflix. But where will you start a family? Every young person I know is on a half-crazed scavenger hunt trying to find some affordable neighborhood in America’s great cities — New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland. We are driving ourselves nuts.

Plenty of folks have made similar observations in different ways. Liz Weston, a treasure of financial writing now at NerdWallet.com, recently observed that Americans are pissed because they own so much less than they did a generation ago. Personal wealth — largely a measure of home value — has fallen 20 percent for the middle class since 1998. And the value of the possessions owned by America’s working class has fallen by half since then. By half! You hear folks complain that their kids won’t be better off than they were; that’s putting it nicely. Americans, from the poor up through the middle class, are losing ground. Fast.

“This is not a few families getting in over their heads. This is a tsunami threatening to drown the American dream,” Weston wrote.

For many reasons, it is foolhardy to wish for the past. We all know that in the 1950s, the American Dream was just a myth to entire swaths of the population. “Make America Great Again” is an insult to them.

But if someone made a hat that said “Make America Affordable Again,” I’d wear it. Because there was a time …

America is yearning for a genuine discussion of how we got from there to here, and better yet, how we get back there. Sadly, we’re busy buying $25 hats, or making fun of those who do. Not great, America. Not great.

More from Bob Sullivan:

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