A Nation Engaged

A Nation Engaged: Is This Still A Land Of Economic Opportunity?


A view of downtown Columbus, Ohio. Last year, the city recorded the highest average hourly earnings gain — 6.2 percent — in the entire country, beating out even San Francisco.
Maddie McGarvey for NPR
A view of downtown Columbus, Ohio. Last year, the city recorded the highest average hourly earnings gain — 6.2 percent — in the entire country, beating out even San Francisco.

Americans who endured the brutal 2007-2009 recession and slow recovery now are seeing an economic sunrise: Wages are up, jobs are growing and more families are lifting themselves up out of poverty.

And yet, dark clouds are still hanging over millions of Americans.

No set of sunny statistics can help an unemployed coal miner in Kentucky pay the mortgage. Upbeat wage data won't reassure a Michigan factory worker who is nervously watching robots replace his co-workers.

In this election cycle, candidates are responding to voters' anger and anxiety about an economy that — yes, has improved dramatically — but still feels uneven and unfair to many.

In this week's installment of an election-year series, A Nation Engaged, NPR reporters will be talking to people about what they are experiencing in this 21st century economy. Are opportunities drying up for middle-class Americans? What policies can help build sturdier ladders for those who want to climb up?

Much of the coverage will involve two cities in Ohio, a key swing state. There, Columbus and Springfield sit near the state's center, roughly 45 miles apart. Despite that proximity, their prospects have moved in opposite directions. Since 1970, Springfield's population has declined about 27 percent, while Columbus' has grown by about 57 percent.

Support comes from

Springfield's paychecks have withered too. Between 1999 and 2014, median incomes fell an astounding 27 percent in Springfield, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. That study also found that in this century, the share of lower-income adults rose from 21 percent to 32 percent in Springfield.

In contrast, Columbus has been booming. Last year, for example, it recorded the highest average hourly earnings gain — 6.2 percent — in the entire country, beating out even San Francisco.

Before focusing on those two Ohio cities, let's get ourselves oriented. Here's the scene nationwide:

In such an immense economy with 324 million people, you can always find a mix of hard times and good times. This year for example, farm incomes have been plunging and tech paychecks soaring.

But overall, the economy is improving. A new U.S. Census Bureau report, released last week, showed that in 2015, U.S. incomes surged, rising 5.2 percent from a year earlier. After adjusting for inflation, median household incomes were up $2,800, to $56,500. That was the single biggest one-year jump since the Census Bureau started collecting that data in 1967.

That's great news, but median household incomes are still 1.6 percent below the 2007 pre-recession level. And they remain 2.4 percent below the all-time high reached in 1999. The poverty rate in 2000 was just 11.3 percent. In 2015, it was 13.5 percent — meaning millions of people who used to be middle class are now poor.

In fact, the wage squeeze has been so sustained that a Pew study done earlier this year found middle-income Americans are no longer in the majority. In 1971, about 2 out of 3 Americans lived in middle-income households. Today, less than 50 percent of households can be called middle income; a slight majority are either upper income or lower income.

All of these numbers may leave you feeling confused, and that's understandable because much of it is conflicting.

So here's what you can take away: The U.S. economy is in far better shape than during the Great Recession. Today, it has a record 5.9 million jobs open, a stable 4.9 percent unemployment rate and rising wages. But large swaths of Americans no longer are secure in the middle class.

What about the future?

Perhaps if the economy stays on track for a few more years, those insecure Americans will see better times. Optimists note that in the last two years, middle-wage jobs — at least those outside of coal country and the oil patch — have improved as employers have added carpenters, truck drivers, installers and such. Also, many state and local minimum wage laws have pushed up paychecks in the last couple of years.

But pessimists fear the middle class is about to shrink much further. They point to employers' growing use of robots, artificial intelligence and other types of automation. Among the vulnerable workers may be truck drivers, bank tellers, cab drivers, secretaries, paralegals and assembly line workers.

Join NPR and member station reporters as they explore questions about economic opportunities — and the policies that may help as new technologies and global trends continue to reshape the American workplace.

Here are examples of efforts to help workers:

More will be coming, but these are stories NPR already has offered. They help illustrate constructive approaches to increasing economic opportunities. Here's a sampling:

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.