Just-released statistics about income and wealth reinforce the crying need to realign America’s reality with our aspirations.

There’s little in the data provided by the Census Bureau last Tuesday that any local family would find shocking. Basically, the numbers say middle-class families have been treading water, at best, for the past 25 years.

Think of all the amazing technological advances since 1988 — the Internet, genetic engineering, computers running everything from phones to cars — and then consider that household incomes are frozen at a nationwide average of about $51,000. The net worth of the typical American family in the middle of the income distribution fell to $66,000 in 2010 — 6 percent less than in 1989 after inflation, according to an analysis in the New York Times.

During these 25 years, the U.S. gross domestic product has climbed 40 percent, with none of those gains accruing to working people. Unlike most other major industrial nations, we also haven’t benefited in the form of more leisure time. We’re working as hard now as we did in the 1980s.

There certainly have been gains in some forms. Life expectancy has improved by four years thanks to factors like medical advances and a decline in smoking. Infant mortality is half what it was in the 1980s. It can be argued that things like smart phones have enriched our lives. Although old-fashioned defined pensions are going away, more Americans now participate in corporate profits via ownership of shares in mutual funds.

But the overall picture is all too familiar to ordinary people, who have to keep peddling faster in the forlorn hope of just staying in the same place.

The path to a better-balanced outcome isn’t much of a mystery. The U.S. prospered during much of the post-World War II years by making a deliberate effort to provide paths to prosperity to all citizens via a progressive income tax, affordable and high-quality education, effective vocational training and other sensible measures.

We are paying the price for Reagan era changes that convinced ordinary citizens to go along with a vast redistribution of wealth to a tiny sliver of the population. This continues, for example with the vote by U.S. House Republicans to slash food aid to Americans who are still struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

It’s time for the American majority to wake up and begin working toward a nation in which we all once again have the ability to prosper based on brains and hard work. Too many more years of the status quo, and we risk becoming just one more nation where inequality is cemented into place forever.


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