TOPICS : Sharing the pie of prosperity in America

Last week, a friend in his 30s prodded me to explain how my generation, the boomers, had botched so many things. While not exactly conceding that we had, I said that the one thing none of us had anticipated was that America would cease to be a land of broadly shared prosperity. To be born, as I was, in mid-century, was to have come of age in a nation in which the level of prosperity continued to rise. If the boomers embraced such causes as civil and social rights and environmentalism, it was partly because the existence and distribution of prosperity seemed to be settled questions.

Nor were we alone in making this mistake. Our parents may have gone through the Depression and could never fully believe, as boomers did, that the good times were here to stay. They remembered busts as well as booms. But the idea that the economy could revert to its pre-New Deal configuration wasn’t what American expected.

Yet that’s precisely what happened. The economic rewards from increased productivity, which went to working-class as well as wealthy Americans from the 1940s to the ‘70s, now go exclusively to the rich. The manufacturing jobs that anchored our prosperity were offshored, automated, or deunionised; lower-paying service-sector jobs took their place.

It’s no great achievement for a people to recognise that their nation’s economy has tanked, but recognising that their nation’s class structure has slowly but fundamentally altered is more challenging. It’s harder still for a people who are conditioned, as Americans are, not to see their nation in terms of class.

Americans’ assessment of their own place in the economy has altered, too. In 1988, fully 59% identified themselves as haves and just 17% as have-nots. By 2001, the haves had dwindled to 52% and the have-nots had risen to 32%. This summer, just 45% of Americans called themselves haves; 34% called themselves have-nots.

These are epochal shifts, of epochal significance. The American middle class has toppled into a world of temporary employment, jobs without benefits, retirement without security. Harder times have come to left and right alike: The percentage of Republicans who call themselves haves has declined by 13 points since 1988; the percentage of Democratic haves by 12 points.

Apparently, so great is Republicans’ loyalty to the Bush presidency that they’re willing to overlook their own experience. And, in many cases, they attribute the nation’s transformation solely to immigration, rather than to the rise of a stateless laissez-faire capitalism over

which the American people wield less and less power. This helps explain why Republican presidential candidates bluster about a fence on the border and have nothing to say about providing health coverage or restoring some power to American workers. But the big story here isn’t Republican denial. It’s the shattering of Americans’ sense of a common identity in a time when the economy no longer promotes the general welfare. — The Christian Science Monitor