A TRIUMPHAL view dominates coverage of the longest peacetime recovery in U.S. history. The numbers tell the story: the lowest yearly unemployment in a quarter century, rising profits, a budget in balance, low interest rates, even lower inflation, and declining numbers of Americans classified as poor. All this is cause for rational exuberance. Allen Sinai, a noted economic analyst, has likened the times to a "worker heaven." But just as the buoyant Reagan economy of the 1980s masked seas of red ink, so the booming Clinton economy of the 1990s masks bad news. Relying on dubious measures that tell us good news, we have ignored the deepening erosion of the American Dream.
On the first Friday of every month the federal government announces the unemployment rate -- lately to much fanfare. A low rate signifies that American workers are able to take care of themselves, and that labor markets are tight and strong -- or so it is generally presumed. But is this really so? To most people the objective of employment is to earn a living. One's work is instrumental in achieving independence, self-sufficiency, and what some call competency. To the Founders, independence and competency meant that a person was able to earn a decent living through work. James Madison said that the happiest and most secure society was that in which the most citizens were independent. No republic could remain untroubled, he believed, if large numbers of citizens were economically marginalized. The self-evident truth that Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in his draft of the Declaration of Independence was that "all men are created equal and independent."
The principle of basic equality realized through economic independence inspired the Homestead Act. Enacted in 1862, it provided an opportunity for independence through grants of land sufficient to sustain a family to all who were willing to settle and work the land. Eighty-six years earlier Jefferson had proposed that the government of Virginia grant fifty acres of publicly owned land to any propertyless citizen willing to farm it. That everyone who is willing to work hard can make a decent living and get ahead is the American Dream.