The food lines in San Antonio, and across the country, are an indictment of the past four decades of policy making. But it was Trump who vowed to confront a rigged system, to drain the swamp, to break the power of entrenched elites whose greed had left the American people behind. Instead, tens of millions of hardworking Americans were swiftly forgotten by the man who vowed to remember them.
The Great Recession cleaned people out. When the economy started growing again, it did so very slowly. The U.S. only returned to its pre-recession unemployment rate in 2017, almost 10 years after the recession began. Because a housing crisis was at the root of the collapse, many members of the middle class, whose wealth tends to be tied up in their homes, lost everything. For most Americans, the recovery was arduous, but for those fortunate few with significant holdings in the stock market, the recovery was relatively rapid.
The coronavirus pandemic “is happening on top of long-standing economic inequalities. We know that significant numbers of Americans didn't have a lot of income to fall back on before the crisis,” Heather Boushey, an economist and the president of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, who is also an adviser to the Biden campaign, told me. “We know that coming out of the Great Recession, the financial crisis, it took far longer for regular families—middle-class families, working-class families—to recover from that than it did those at the top, who recovered quite quickly.”
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Since the 1970s, incomes at the top have diverged from those at the bottom, as wage growth has stagnated. Left-leaning economists identify this divergence as a problem of political economy—as labor unions declined, workers lost power relative to their bosses, and with it, their ability to negotiate a living wage or exert influence on lawmakers. As campaigns became more expensive, lawmakers in both parties became more dependent on, and beholden to, wealthy business interests. Those same business interests were also able to vastly outspend their opponents in lobbying and campaign donations, regardless of which party held power. Although policies and tax rates change depending on which party is in charge, this fundamental imbalance of power lingers unaltered.
“The thing that we have seen continue to march on is the rise of economic concentration at the top. That continued over the past 40 years, above and beyond a particular administration,” Boushey said. “We have thought about the distribution of the gains of our economy—who gets money when we see growth—as something that we could leave entirely up to the market, and that it would create these essentially fundamentally fair outcomes.”
In their book Winner-Take-All Politics, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson found that this imbalance of power translates into policies that favor the wealthy, no matter how unpopular those policies may be. “If 90 percent of poor Americans supported a policy change, it was no more likely to happen than if 10 percent did. By contrast, when more of the well-off supported a change, it was substantially more likely to happen,” Hacker and Pierson wrote. “What about the middle class? They did not fare much better than the poor when their opinions departed from those of the well-off. When well-off people strongly supported a policy change, it had almost three times the chance of becoming law as when they strongly opposed it.”