America is once again engaged in the process of rebuilding its economy from a devastating recession. The United States cannot afford another feeble and prolonged rebound, in which the gilded chambers of the economy recover faster than all the others, and it need not have one. But it may be slipping into that trap again, because our leaders have not learned the lessons of the nation’s great postwar boom, the last time America delivered lasting prosperity and security for the middle class. They have not learned that the way to create another middle-class boom is by investing in workers.
I’ve spent two decades writing and reporting about politics and economics, in Washington and around the country. For much of that time, I have been consumed by a question: Where did the good jobs go for the American middle class after the great postwar boom faded 40 years ago, and where will we find new ones to replace them? I have interviewed laid-off factory workers in Ohio, home health aides in Virginia, an aspiring lawyer who watched her mother lose her childhood home in Chicago, a relentlessly upbeat airport valet who earned poverty wages for wheeling elderly passengers through the terminal. I have watched more equation-stuffed slide decks at economics conferences than I would deem medically advisable. From the people and the cutting-edge research, I have built an understanding of what actually made the middle class boom after World War II, and what it will take to rebuild it from our pandemic crisis now.