A recent report from the US Census Bureau highlights the predicament of the US middle class and helps explain the concomitant political fallout. At year-end 2018, the median household income was $63,200. Adjusted for inflation, this is barely above the 1999 level and 135 percent above income levels of 30 years ago (a mere 14 percent in real terms)—this despite the economy growing by almost 50 percent. During the same period, nominal average house prices went up almost 200 percent, average tuition at public colleges more than 500 percent, and average per capita health expenditures roughly 280 percent. Such an increase in costs for the three things that matter the most (health, housing and education) helps explain why the US middle class is being hollowed out, and efforts to stay in it result in indebtedness and associated anxiety. In addition, the US economy is being held back by this rising inequality.
This phenomenon of a shrinking/anxious middle class collides head-on with people’s wellness. It is not specific to the US but particularly marked in what remains the world’s largest and most innovative economy. But when its performance is measured in social and environmental terms, the US then appears as a significant outlier.
According to the Social Progress Index—which complements economic measures such as GDP to understand the true state of a society—the US is the only developed country that is backsliding, both in absolute and relative terms, compared to its peers. It now ranks 26th in social progress. Norway comes first.