Is Life Better Than It Was Decades Ago? For Some Voters, Probably Not

The Pew Research Center recently polled voters on whether life in America is better or worse than it was 50 years ago “for people like them.” Overall, 46% of voters say that life is worse. As you might have guessed, this is especially true of Republican voters and especially especially true of Donald Trump’s supporters.

This isn’t entirely in voter’s imaginations either– not necessarily over the past 50 years, but certainly in recent decades, some different demographic groups have had quite different outcomes.

Overall, Mr. Trump’s supporters are the most negative on the question, but Ted Cruz and Dennis Kasich’s supporters also feel like they’re losing ground. By contrast, the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tend to say feel like things are getting better. Although Pew did not ask strictly about economics, here are the economic outcomes for a handful of groups in recent decades.

First, this truly has been a very different economy depending on how much schooling someone has. Families headed by someone with a master’s degree earn almost 10% more than they did 25 years ago, even after adjusting for inflation, and have regained much of the ground that they lost during the recession.

Those with only a college degree have seen their incomes fall in the two most recent recessions, and they haven’t caught back up yet. They earn about as much as they did 25 years ago.

For those without a college diploma, however, the last 15 years have been especially difficult. After making some modest gains through the year 2000, their incomes fell in the 2001 and 2007-09 recession and have yet to really even begin to recover. These families earn about 15% less than they did 25 years ago.

All the way through the 1990s, the number of women in the workforce surged dramatically. That had the effect of boosting the overall labor-force participation rate of the U.S. economy. But it also masked the extent to which men were becoming less likely to work.

The above chart shows how the labor force participation rate of men and women has changed. Only ages 25 to 54 are shown, to avoid the issue of rising retirement or more people attending college. This chart shows that 25-54-year-old men have gradually and consistently lost ground in the labor market for decades.

Finally, 50 years ago, manufacturing really was the king of the U.S. economy, accounting for nearly as many jobs as if you combined the entire fields of education and health, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and retail. But since the late 1970s, manufacturing jobs have declined outright (even as the overall U.S. population has continued to grow.)

In June 2001, professional and businesses services surpassed manufacturing and in October of 2001, health and education services became a bigger employer than all of U.S. manufacturers. In December of 2002, retailers became the employer of more people than manufacturers and finally in 2008, leisure and hospitality jobs eclipsed manufacturing too.

While professional, business, health and education jobs generally pay decent wages, they also tend to require more education than the manufacturing jobs of the past, and it’s not easy for workers to switch. Retail and hospitality jobs, by contrast, are generally lower wage than manufacturing jobs.

The question of whether an entire group of people is better or worse off than 50 years ago is a complex one — but when it comes to economic circumstances, some groups of people really have lost ground.

 

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