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Amy Traub

Economic Expansion Finally Reaches Ordinary Americans (Too Bad It’s Over)

Today’s new Census data on poverty, income and health coverage brings us some good news. Unfortunately, it’s a year old.

Each August, the Census releases the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement, providing national statistics about the prior year. Today we learn that in 2007, the economic expansion that began six years before was finally beginning to reach the American middle-class.

Real median earnings of both men and women who worked full-time, year-round rose between 2006 and 2007! Real median household income was back to where it was in 1999!! At last, ordinary Americans recovered the ground lost in the last recession!!!

Well, not entirely.

The nation’s poverty rate was 12.5% in 2007, compared to 11.3% back in 2000. And while much is being made of the fact that the number of uninsured Americans unexpectedly declined over the past year, we still had 45.7 million uninsured Americans in 2007 – 15.3% of the population compared to 14% in 2000. So much for regaining all the lost ground. There were still 8.1 million children without health insurance, and 13.3 million kids growing up in poverty in 2007.

Nevertheless, it’s heartening to see the beginnings of economic recovery for ordinary people. It would be good news indeed if the nation, having recovered its footing, now had an opportunity to build on that, expanding the middle class and genuinely raising living standards. Sadly, we know that 2007 was not the beginning of a new economic flourishing but the end. As the year drew to a close, pundits were speculating whether the country might already be in a recession. By mid-2008, few even bothered to ask: it had become clear that, whatever economists had to say about the business cycle, ordinary Americans were feeling economic pain.

We finally got to the party in 2007, but we’d scarcely made it to the punch bowl (never mind a first slice of cake) before the music shut off and an ungracious host started to shoo people out the door. Now a lot of us are landing with a bump on the cold pavement outside.

How can we get the next shindig going? And make sure our invitations arrive quickly this time? And maybe make it less of a blowout celebration and more of a friendly neighborhood gathering we can actually sustain for a while? That will depend on good public policy.

The Democrats will put forward some of their economic ideas today, with a convention theme of “Renewing America’s Promise.” What they -- and their Republican counterparts -- have to say on this issue should be a central concern of voters this fall.

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Posted at 12:35 PM, Aug 26, 2008 in Economy | Health Care | Middle-class squeeze
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