Week 1: Charting our course
MassINC was formed in 1996 by leaders deeply concerned about the future of the state’s middle class. They believed that our strength as a commonwealth hinges on the well-being of those in the middle because broadly shared prosperity fosters optimism in the economy and commitment to our civic institutions, a self-fulfilling confidence of sorts that enables future growth and vitality.
Since our founding two decades ago, we have done periodic check-ins, combing through the economic data for an objective look at the health of the American Dream in Massachusetts. Each report has raised more concern, drawing attention to the growing inequality, the narrowing of the middle, and the increasing geographic separation between haves and have nots.Unveiled in January of 1996, our very first study noted how economic trends were reshaping the pursuit of happiness: “Family Life has changed dramatically. Two incomes are now a necessity for a middle class lifestyle. More wives are working, and working longer hours, to offset income declines for most husbands.”
The conclusion of our 2002 report State of the American Dream in Massachusetts echoed a similar theme: “The families that are getting ahead financially look alike in key respects. Most are college-educated with two income earners who both work a substantial number of hours.”
Four years later, a labor market study marking our 10th anniversary found that economic pressures were pushing middle class residents out of state. Prior MassINC survey research had warned that many residents were dissatisfied with quality of life and would move elsewhere given the opportunity. In the early 2000s, they acted on this threat. Massachusetts was the only US state to experience population loss in back-to-back years; high levels of domestic out-migration were a key contributor to Bay State population loss.
Our last comprehensive look at the state of the American Dream in Massachusetts came out in December 2011. The strongest call to action yet, the report declared the 2000s a “lost decade” and emphasized that, for the first time since World War II, Massachusetts ended a decade with fewer jobs and stagnant income growth.
A summary of this body of research is incomplete without mentioning Andy Sum. Our devoted partner at Northeastern’s Center for Labor Market Studies, Andy’s passion for working families and the promise of upward mobility in America was the driving force behind these studies. While he is now retired, we continue to hold dear his commitment to objectivity and rigor.
With Andy’s high standard as our North Star, we embark on a new journey to mark our 20th anniversary. In the form of a blog with weekly installments, once again we’ll examine the state of the American Dream in our commonwealth. We approach this task with great curiosity.
The latest research is cause for some pessimism about what we may find. In December, Pew issued a major report showing the middle class continues to lose ground. According to Pew, the share of US households in the middle income tier has fallen from 61 percent in the 1970s to 50 percent today; the drop in the share of all income earned by these households in the middle has been even more dramatic, falling from 62 percent to just 43 percent. But the Pew report also reveals some deceleration in the pace of the loss. In the 1980s, middle income households ceded 6 percent of the income pie and they dropped another 7 percent in the 1990s. Since 2000, the loss has been just 4 percent.
Perhaps we’ve reached a point where every additional ounce let from the middle class takes a heavier toll. The precarious position of US families can be felt in the electorate as well as in the media, which has made much of recent reports showing substance abuse and suicide driving death rates off the charts for middle age white Americans.On the other hand, there seems to be some strength to the economic recovery, particularly in Massachusetts. The state is adding jobs faster than the nation. Outmigration is down and our population is growing at a relatively steady clip. There are also signs of adjustment to the new economic realities. Unprecedented numbers of youth are completing high school and going on to post-secondary training. Teen pregnancy rates have fallen dramatically and we’re finally coming to terms with the interaction between economic opportunity, incarceration, and the unravelling of the family in communities rankled by poverty.
Perhaps after eluding us for a generation, the rising tide that lifts all boats has finally returned to our shores. We shall see…