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.
My reporting taught me that the United States economy enjoyed a golden era of shared prosperity in large part because, during the war effort and the civil-rights era, America made it easier for people who had been previously shut out of economic opportunity—women, minorities, immigrants—to enter the workforce and climb the economic ladder, to make better use of their talents and potential. Research from economists at the University of Chicago and Stanford attributes two-fifths of our per-worker growth since 1960 to that improved flow of talent. Reducing discrimination made our country faster-growing and more productive. It lifted everyone up, including white men, who have set the rules of the American economy since its founding.
And I’ve also learned what isn’t working. I’ve seen the government bail out airlines and flood the financial system with money to keep it functioning, while leaving individuals to slowly scrape up the pieces of their shattered careers and dreams. I’ve watched politicians harness the politics of fear to lash out at immigrants, ignoring the doctors who have manned ventilators during the pandemic and the farmworkers who have kept produce flowing to Amazon’s delivery trucks. I’ve seen the public turn a blind eye to the centuries of systemic oppression that have kept Black women who don nursing scrubs and ring up groceries from earning and saving enough to buy their own homes. And in the depths of a crisis, I’ve watched populists pit one struggling group of Americans, who happen to be white men, against struggling Black and Latino men, and against women of all races.