Seven years into the recovery, economic frustration remains a key driving force in the anger that seems to be fueling the U.S. November election. Despite new economic data suggesting more people are working, and their wages are rising, a lot of people say the economic recovery has left them behind.
Among them is Denise Alber from Stafford county in Virginia. She has two college degrees but has opted to take care of her 98-year-old mother. Together, they receive a fixed income of roughly $25,000 a year, a little more than the poverty rate for a family of two. Looking at her monthly bills, she laments that while the cost of food, medicines and health care have gone up – her family’s income has not. "It's been very, very difficult to maintain the same standard of living. We have not been able to maintain it." Alber adds that like many Americans, she believes there's a war on the middle class.
Alber’s situation is at odds with new census data showing median household incomes surged 5.2% in 2015, the most since 2007. That increase, the first in eight years is another indication that the U.S. recovery continues. However, economists say the increase still leaves household incomes nearly two percent below 2007 levels, before the start of the Great Recession.
Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget understands why many Americans feel like the recovery has left them behind.
“You used to have a bargain that you would have a job, and your salary would grow through your twenties or thirties or forties or fifties or sixties when you retire, and you would have a secure Retirement. I don't think it feels like that anymore.”
Economists say it’s that sense of betrayal that’s driving a lot of the anger in this election cycle. Some of it, fueled by a perception that middle class incomes have remained stagnant while the wealthiest have prospered. Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington says the income gap has only widened since the recession.
“The top 5 percent is still the only group that has completely returned back to their 2000 levels. So they’ve made up lost ground. There’s inequality across the income distribution and as you say correctly there’s inequality between groups.”
Ethnic and minority households saw the biggest gains in 2014 and 2015 with real incomes increasing 6.1% among Hispanics and 4.1% among African Americans. But minority groups also lost a bigger share of income during the recession and have further to go to reach parity with whites. The latest census figures show African American median household income is about 59 percent of white median household income, and still about 11 percent below what they used to earn before the recession.
Most economists who spoke with VOA say the income gap between rich and poor, between races and gender reflects a structural problem created by the political dysfunction in Washington. One example, says poverty rights advocate Maria Foscarinis at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, is that Washington currently spends more on putting people in jail than lifting people out of poverty.
“It is really is a waste of resources. There’s studies now that it’s more cost effective to house people than to criminalize them for living on the street. Which is what is happening right now in many communities around the country.”
That dysfunction is one of the reasons Denise Alper says the next election is so important. But she holds out very little hope that either candidate will have much impact.
"In terms of the economy or politics, I'm very despondent in that regard. I don't think either candidate will help the middle class."