President Reagan famously asked Americans, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” when seeking their vote for his reelection in 1984. That slogan has been repeated by many candidates since, typically as a way to encourage audiences to focus on the economy: Are you earning more, do you have a better job, and are you better able to afford everyday necessities than before?
Yet, today, finances don’t seem to drive the answer to that question.
Certainly, today’s economy provides plenty of frustrations. Official unemployment is down, but too many people are underemployed in jobs that don’t use their skills or education and aren’t putting them on their desired career path. Wages are stagnating, and while the Obama Administration insists inflation remains low, groceries seem more expensive than ever and the exploding costs of college, health care, and housing in many parts of the country make people feel like they are treading water, at best.
Yet these financial doldrums don’t explain the nagging pessimism that seems to have settled on America. Gallup just reported that only 28 percent of Americans say they are “satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S.” One might assume that this is just a reaction to the ugly political fight that’s dominated the news during recent months, but this response rate has been pretty consistent throughout the Obama presidency, and started at the end of the last Bush term. As Gallup put it, “Satisfaction remains significantly below the historical average of 37% since Gallup began measuring it in 1979.”
The economy has had some relative ups and downs during those years, but the overall perception of the direction of the country has remained bleak. Part of the problem is likely the sense that our country is fragmenting. For all of the talk of “hope” and “change” when President Obama took office, today our country is more divided than ever. According to a Rasmussen Poll, 60 percent of Americans believe race relations are worse today than they were eight years ago. Just 9 percent think they are better.
It’s not just police shootings and race riots that suggest racial tensions are getting worse, but college campuses seem increasingly paralyzed by how to navigate racial issues and other social considerations. The college experience is supposed to be one that encourages students to learn how to grapple with sensitive subjects and explore different perspectives. Yet colleges no longer seem capable of facilitating thoughtful discourse and instead seem to be feeding anxieties about gender, sexuality and racial issues, leaving students fearful of being offended or giving offense and crippling the healthy give-and-take of freewheeling academic debate.
Parents and students already frustrated with exploding college costs are understandably even more frustrated when so little of what goes on on college campus seems to be about actual knowledge acquisition or skill attainment. Gallup found that while half of college graduates strongly agreed that their education was worth the costs, just 37 percent of those who graduated between 2006 and 2015 expressed the same satisfaction. That’s a pretty sad situation: Most of these recent graduates are still paying down their considerable college loans, which means that they will be paying for their education—one that most don’t even think was worth the money—for years to come.
Americans are known for their optimism, but today most aren’t confident that there’s a bright future ahead for the next generation. A CNN/Money survey found that 56 percent of Americans believe that the next generation will be worse off than them financially. Yet most parents aren’t just anxious about their kids’ ability to make a living, but about what kind of community they will be living in and what kind of relationships they will have. One report found that six out of ten parents believe their teenagers are addicted to technology (half of the teens agreed) and one-third of parents and teens argue daily about their technology use. And that technology use is pretty overwhelming. Eight out of ten teens check their mobile devices hourly, and seven out of ten of the parents admitted to being just as hooked. With technology crowding out human interaction, it’s little wonder that three-quarters of Americans who took part in a recent Associated Press survey believed that, overall, manners and behavior were on the decline.
That’s a pretty bleak picture, and one that won’t change even if economic growth were to tick up an extra percentage point or two. Certainly a growing economy and a healthier job market would restore some feeling of optimism—the central American belief that working hard and getting ahead is still a real possibility in America today. But rebuilding a more positive culture—no easy feat—is the real key to getting America back on the right track. Whatever the outcome of this election, it’s clear that many Americans have already answered in the negative Ronald Reagan’s question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?